By BRUCE DENNILL
Shape / Directed by Greg Homann / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
The tagline for this new original work is, “A comedy of vanity, sex and race” – three things that are generally not particularly funny (unless, in the case of sex, you’re doing it wrong). Throw politics and religion into that mix – and playwrights Steven and Kate Sidley sprinkle a couple of sentiments on those topics – and you have just about everything you’re told not to talk about at a dinner party.
Theatre is a great platform to on which to delve into taboo subjects, as audiences associate that space with escapism and thus, even if the material explored is serious and sensitive, there’s a perceived gap between listening to the views expressed in the script and needing to engage with them once you leave the venue.
That’s the challenge embraced by the Sidleys and director Greg Homann who, by giving the piece a static setting in one corner of the stationary bike (a good visual metaphor for much of the content) section of a private gym, ensure that the focus is always on the views of the characters and the way they are expressed.
That’s great in terms of delivering a message, but less so in terms of presenting a plot. Essentially, there isn’t one: this is a declamation about the state of the nation – South Africa; it can’t be transplanted anywhere else – with an imaginative delivery system.
For anyone with any sort of reasonable level of interest in current affairs, the script has the same sort of feel as a well-researched stand-up routine, though the central trio of characters – an insecure middle-aged divorcee named Stella (Camilla Waldman); a tactless middle-class gym boy in his thirties named Stewart (Craig Hawks); and Vusi (Nyaniso Dzedze), a chiselled gym instructor with entitlement issues and a penchant for emotional manipulation.
That the most empathetic character is Stewart, a self-proclaimed narcissist and casual misogynist, is perhaps the play’s most powerful point: South Africans, as represented by this trio (stereotypes, yes, but with broadly applicable characteristics) are neither happy, nor content, nor particularly aware of what makes their countrymen of other races and cultures tick, and this situation needs addressing.
Trying to fill the gaps between the protagonists’ perspectives is a disembodied narrator coming through the gym’s PA system, voiced by Zimkitha Kumbaca who is seated in the audience with a microphone throughout. It’s a mechanism that doesn’t quite work, with the role being by far the weakest of the four (though in the writers’ defence, giving notable dramatic heft to a loudspeaker was always going to be difficult) as it injects a dose of perspective into conversations going on elsewhere. Perhaps a more authoritative voice reading the same lines might also help – there’s a reason Morgan Freeman is repeatedly cast as God…
Hawks is excellent, adding a goofy cheerfulness to Stewart’s perma-pumping mixture of libido and testosterone and charming the audience in the irregular moments when the fourth wall is dropped (even though there’s a cast member in the audience, there’s the usual separation of cast and audience for long stretches of the piece).
There are a couple of short segments that don’t spark, but laughs are otherwise frequent and audiences for whom populist discourse appeals (this script is built on observations, rather than creating and arguing for a unique, original viewpoint) will be stimulated by the implications of the onstage dialogue and, hopefully spend the drive home refining their own views.