Theatre Review: Femme Is Fatale – Activism For The Abused, Or Tuned Into Tenacity

August 15, 2023




Femme Is Fatale / Directed by Eloise Clasen / Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


‘Cabaret’ usually refers to a song-and-dance show, often at a restaurant, with perhaps a short skirt here or some risqué language there to add a touch of titillation for viewers. Femme Is Fatale, written with sustained, contained rage by Bruce J Little and brought to life with blistering intensity by Elzabé Zietsman, is a different beast altogether. It’s protest theatre, but is unconcerned with matters as passé as politics, except where cowardly and irresponsible ‘leaders’ don’t step up where they’re needed.

Instead, it’s focus is unabashedly on gender-based violence of all kinds – hardly a topic to draw in an audience for a fun night out, but a subject it is essential (as Zietsman points out during the show) to talk about in order to understand different perspectives and to bring together different communities in opposition to what is, particularly in South Africa, a sickening scourge.

Zietsman, along with expert accompanist Tony Bentel, does make the piece entertaining – once she has, from the very first monologue, ensured you know where you stand as an audience member; and perhaps particularly if you’re a man. Incidentally, if that previous sentence gets your #NotAllMen hackles up, the cleverly structured and well-paced script (by a man, don’t forget) leaves you in no doubt that the tenor of the onstage action is slanted in the appropriate direction.

Zietsman is a rare performer, something of a cabaret specialist, and she channels the anger and the sadness and the grief and the desperation of both the various characters she portrays or alludes to – the stories of three different women with different experiences but overlapping outcomes are threaded through the piece – and herself, as a woman with much to give who is righteously enraged at the state of society when it comes to sexual violence, abuse, rape and all the other facets of GBV.

As an accompanist, Bentel not only offers support in terms of backing for the show’s themed music, which supports the narrative, but also underlines its mood and integrity in the way he connects with and pays attention to Zietsman onstage. She’s not warbling sweet nothings out into the darkness: each sequence is a challenge or a tribute or an artistically crafted howl of anguish. So when audiences note Bentel’s focused gaze and the heartsore expression that often occupies his face, it adds another layer to an already powerful presentation.

The performance of the songs is excellent, and in other contexts, applause would be natural and spontaneous. But the mood of the storytelling in Femme Is Fatale is so affecting that it often feels awkward to do something as celebratory as clapping in a scenario where demons have so arrestingly been confronted.

As activism, this is a significant, powerful piece that, tragically, will not lose its relevance. Artistically, it’s just as unlikely to get tired, and given the simplicity of its set – strings of X-rays to underline the presence of violence, a couple of boxes for Zietsman to stand or sit on and a couple of large, er, prosthetics – it can be staged in any number of different venues. When it comes to a spot near you, go an see it, and take others so the conversation can be carried further forward.