By BRUCE DENNILL
RedFest 2019 / 4-5 October / Redhill School, Morningside, Johannesburg
For a Johannesburg-based arts fan, getting to festivals that offer a good mix of theatrical and other endeavours along with music (which is better catered for in terms of single-focus events) almost always requires a fair bit of travelling, whether it’s to Makhanda, Hilton, Oudtshoorn, Nelspruit or wherever. RedFest, now in its fourth year, has moved forward annually to a point where it mixes established pieces from the straight theatre circuit with cult comedies, high-class musical revues, children’s theatre, Shakespeare and stand-up. And the chance to spend a full day milling around Redhill School, a campus with enough purpose-made or adaptable venues to comfortably accommodate the 20 offerings on this year’s programme, is a fantastic alternative if budget or available leave don’t allow for travelling to events further afield.
Two days, seven shows. The good life.
Love Stage – A Love Story Through The Musicals / Music supervision by Drew Bakker
Bringing together a cleverly curated collection of compositions from a wide range of musicals, this original show debuted at the festival, and based on the enthusiastic reception it received and the quality evident in both concept and execution, it’s likely to enjoy a number of future runs.
Featuring three singers – Sharon Spiegel-Wagner (who conceived the piece), Lorri Strauss and Mauritz Badenhorst – and an accomplished accompanist in Maryke Johnson, the show is presented against a stylish backdrop of Edison bulbs on bare metal stands in front of a black curtain.
There is a narrative rather than the generic patter that is generally par for the course in such shows, and a clever, warm, emotive mechanism is used. The voiceover, edited to link the songs, is a recording of an interview with a sweet old lady, recounting the story of her relationship with her husband, from courtship to the end of his life. There is no real effort to polish her tale too much, but her giggles and slightly awkward recollections (about her man’s temper, for instance), give her account authenticity – which makes the bits where she clearly feels joy rather special.
The opening medley sets out the production’s stall immediately, showcasing complex arrangements and vocal interplay and a lack of fear when it comes to challenging keys and intervals. The singers combine in different partnerships or perform solo to change dynamics and set moods for the diverse songs, many of which are not frontline hits for the average audience.
Choreography is built around three stools and the piano, which is onstage, just adjacent to where the singers start off. Behind the instrument, Johnson offers a rock-solid foundation for the entire production.
Strauss is physically expressive, with a flair for highlighting comedic moments in the tunes and a high, clear voice, struggling with only the very top note in an early solo before settling down. Badenhorst is slightly stiffer in his delivery, but solidly holds down his parts in the arrangements and warms up emotionally as the show progresses. Spiegel-Wagner’s theatrical experience is evident in her comfort with all the transitions – taking the lead in choreography, adding dramatic and comedic touches and, when given the chance, raising the bar with her quite sublime voice. Her solo rendition of Unusual Way (from Nine) is perhaps the highlight of the show, with I Know Him So Well (from Chess), a duet with Strauss, also particularly memorable.
This is already a strong package. It will be interesting to watch it develop as it gets refined and tweaked ahead of future stagings.
Strange Land / Directed by Jade Bowers
This is a one-man show staring Renos Spanoudes and telling the story of Dimitri Tsafendas, the parliamentary messenger who assassinated South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd in 1966. It’s a fascinating, layered performance of a perpetually underestimated man who had strong views on human rights and a personal heritage – with a white father and a black mother – that gave his activism added impetus.
Tsafendas goes through an emotional rollercoaster on a stark, striking set as he alternately hints at being mentally unwell (the famous, and bizarre, “tapeworm defence” is investigated) in a bid to avoid more dramatic punishment than he is already receiving and then retracts those suggestions to try and explain that his actions were carried out for valid reasons.
Spanoudes eases into and then entirely becomes his character – sane, insane, abused or formulating strategy – over the course of what is essentially a hugely multifaceted 80-minute-plus monologue. He gets through the whole physical, passionate role without a stumble, which is a powerful achievement and a brilliant history lesson, offering multiple perspectives from all sides of the story.
Sadly, one of the most potent lessons learned has to do with the tragedy – when seen in hindsight – of what happened as a result of Tsafendas’ actions: nothing of any real significance at all. All of his pain (both physical and in regard to his separation from his loved ones and society in general during his long imprisonment) was for nothing – Verwoerd’s policies and influence survived in those who came after him.
Sobering, introspective material.
Remix Revolutions / Redhill Orchestra, Choir, Drum Line and Dancers
When a petite violinist stands to kick off the first composition in this exhibition of the skills of the students in the music and associated departments, the last thing you expect to hear is Angus Young’s famous riff from AC/DC’s Thunderstruck – an unanticipated, lively start. It’s also a great reminder of the complexity of the musicianship involved in popular music, with the sound of a rock band replicated by an entire orchestra.
This is followed by the theme from The Simpsons. This probably the first time those two pieces have been juxtaposed, offering an interesting nod to what constitutes cultural colossi from different perspectives.
One of the major differences between this and professional levels of performance are minor tuning issues that niggle throughout. In the circumstances, kudos to the young soloists who hold the line when it is their turn in the spotlight. During some of the faster, more multi-layered arrangements, there are brief periods where it feels like there is a landslide of instruments, though they are all in harmony once the bottom of the musical hill is reached.
A couple of the musicians are last-minute substitutes for orchestra members who have broken limbs during school sports matches and the like, and some of the featured soloists are alumni, all of which highlights the value of community as an informal part of the overall curriculum. The appearance of a choir, drum line, contemporary dance troupe, a vocal trio and a hip hop dancer in addition to the orchestra and soloists also speaks of the inclusive nature of the arts programme at the school and its reflection of the talents and culture of those involved. In this same light, it’s encouraging to recognise young performers from previous years at the festival who are growing their skillset as they develop.
Monkey Nuts / Directed by Geraldine Naidoo
A clever subdivision of a smaller hall, complete with raked seating, allows audiences for Matthew Ribnick’s one-man show Monkey Nuts to get up close and personal with the actor and the many characters he plays in the show.
The comedy’s protagonist, Edgar Chambers – a name that sounds like it could fit a serial killer – is a shy loner who memorises the price of every item he sees in the shops and has as his best friend a monkey used to attract custom to a pet shop in the mall where he works. Chambers may be unconventional, but in sticking to his guns he exhibits an authenticity the eventually helps him to develop friendships with a motley crew of local oddballs.
There is non-stop, high-energy superficial humour in the distinct accents Ribnick uses for each character, as well as the physical theatre that helps him to present each role as visually separate (aided by the use of a procession of different hats). In addition to that hilarity, though, there is a profound character arc as the script explores loneliness, relationships – conventional or otherwise, and the interplay of many of the archetypes recognisable in the residents of the city of Johannesburg.
Around two thirds of the way through, Ribnick notes the relatively high number of youngsters in the room and smoothly informs his technical team that he will be dropping a character “because there are too many kids”. That character is obviously a particularly foul-mouthed individual and though Ribnick says – and proves himself right – that the story can be told without this chap, there are a few moments in the remainder of the piece where he forgets that the character has been nixed and introduces a scene with him in mind. “So, Malcolm – wait, Malcolm’s not in this. Forget Malcolm.” This cheerful corpsing adds another level of mirth to proceedings and also underlines Ribnick’s improvisational skills as he works around the holes in the narrative that he’s just created.
It’s all simultaneously utterly ridiculous and draped in dignity, provoking belly laughs while being unexpectedly philosophical.
Evil / Directed by Laine Butler and Mike Da Silva
A one-man show starring the versatile Jaques Da Silva, this is an arresting, questioning look at bullying and the ramifications it can have not only for an individual but for those who a victim interacts with. It’s a subtle unpacking of the different layers of bullying, looking at the phenomenon from all sides, and is given further power by its being based on reality – it’s the story of one Erik Ponti (played by Da Silva), who was regularly beaten by his stepfather and then, when he was sent to boarding school – what might have been an escape – subjected to institutionalised maltreatment by the student leadership there.
In both scenarios, Erik is, when looking for leadership from his elders, given the worst example possible to follow. It’s not surprising, then, that he becomes rough around the edges himself, but in defending himself with considerable ferocity at school, it could be argued that Erik blurs the line between himself and his oppressors. Fighting violence with violence almost always results in more losers than winners, and there are scenes in which it appears that Erik’s gentle, down-trodden roommate Pierre may have the better strategy: let it happen and move on, with the decision to do so being as brave – at least – as physically retaliating.
With Da Silva fluidly and intensely handling the roles of Erik, Pierre and a number of that pair’s tormentors, the links between bully and victim are made starkly clear. Bullies, when humiliated by a victim who decides to face up to them, may simply switch targets, finding a way to feel validated no matter the increasingly heavy cost to others. There is a spiral of such behaviour in Evil, with some scenes vividly recalling Lord Of The Flies.
Is standing up the right thing to do, or does it, paradoxically, make things worse? The play purposefully doesn’t provide a concrete answer. In the two contexts in which Erik operates – home and school – different forces are at play and different people are at risk. A single strategy can have completely diverse outcomes.
As the play ends and Da Silva steps forward to receive applause, it is possible to watch the knuckles of his clenched fist go from taut and white to more relaxed as he steps out of character. It may be that this play is as difficult to perform as its subject matter is to confront: if so, the actor does his audience a significant service each time he steps on stage in this role.
#Selflove / Starring Ursula Botha
A one-woman show featuring a succession of realistically verbose – a well-edited script is great, but sparse speech isn’t natural for most people – characters, #Selflove explores the perspectives of and challenges faced by the average woman, and how these could or should perhaps be reconsidered by those around these women or the individuals themselves.
There is a divorced “good girl”; a confident, searching kugel; an Egyptian manicurist seeking plastic surgery (layer on layer of reliance on superficial attractiveness); and a social media influencer. In all their monologues, Botha touches on the training, that women receive, unconscious or otherwise, in order to become what is supposedly normal or desirable.
Botha is an accessible performer, placing vulnerable perspectives over the openness she is already exhibiting as writer and performer. Similarly, each of her characters has delicately discernible personae as they juggle one behaviour pattern that is now good, then bad, and never enough. And in regard to that last scenario, each has a part of all of their lives an amount of guilt that’s impossible to shake off.
This is gently persuasive stuff, reflective of society rather than invented for entertainment’s sake.
Apex / Presented by John Vlismas
Having given up on stand-up comedy because has, in his estimation, become more about prejudice based on stereotypes than intelligent humour, John Vlismas has taken to giving a staged presentation (not unlike a Ted Talk, but longer) that allows him to, as he puts it, “process my own stupidity.”
It may not officially be a comedy show, but Vlismas’ natural patter an authoritative presence mean that he delivers his material in a way that results in regular giggles, frequent belly laughs and the occasional shocked gasp.
If it’s more of a lecture, it’s also more than a lecture, flying through history and science and statistics in an entertaining, challenging way. Homo sapiens is cast as the tyrant that destroyed all the competition that had come before and is now, in this last short period, is finding ever new ways to over-strain natural systems.
There are striking, statistics-based insights: majorities never really win, with minorities – including, on a global scale, men, Americans and university graduates – better at organising themselves to reach their particular goals. In essence, Vlismas notes, this is why democracy doesn’t work.
There are views based on science (that anomalies are necessary to drive progress) and others base on observation (that the stories we tell ultimately determine our realities). It’s intellectual exercise of the best sort. It’s only notable shortfall, particularly given the “prejudice based on stereotypes” comment upfront, is that Vlismas, an outspoken atheist, takes opportunities throughout the show to mock God and Christian believers as a fantasy and idiots respectively because they don’t comfortably fit into the framework he’s presenting. And while he absolutely has a point when it comes to some elements of Christianity as a religion and many of those who represent it, there is no sliding scale in his disdain as there should be if all believers were not being treated as identical.
Christopher Hitchens with gags? That’s a fair – and complimentary – assessment, as here is another mighty intellect grappling with important questions.