By BRUCE DENNILL
Aesop’s Fables / Directed by Weslee Swain Lauder / National Children’s Theatre, Parktown, Johannesburg
Timeless literature will almost always maintain its appeal, regardless of the context in which it is placed. Place Aesop’s Fables – well received two and a half millennia ago when they were written and popular ever since – in the hands of a skilled creative team and the chances are good that the results will be satisfactory at the very least.
In this National Children’s Theatre production – performed on an outside stage which allows for much greater COVID-19 safety for those who have come to watch – the outcome is much better than that. Director Weslee Swain Lauder’s adaptations of the ancient Greek’s moral tales The Grasshopper and the Ants, The Lion and the Mouse, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and others meet all the requirements of the platform on which they’re presented, giving strong, clear messages to young audiences using bright colours, direct interaction with the cast and popular contemporary music. But they go way beyond that basic brief with the addition of tight, confident choreography (especially impressive given how compact the stage is), a script that contains an array of knowing asides that older members of the crowd will enjoy and a sense of freedom for the actors that allows them to make the most of excellent onstage chemistry and collective talent.
Ashleigh Butcher, Bradley Hartmann, Dezlenne Ulster-Weale and Justin Swartz (incidentally, all Oakfields College Department of Musical Theatre And Dance graduates) each play a number of characters in the five stories collected here, each multi-tasking as actors, singers and dancers, and able to switch from protagonist to ensemble and back with easy fluidity. The quartet hit the sweet spot where tone is concerned, genuinely connecting with the kids in attendance but also patently enjoying the chance to invest in their performances beyond that. Swartz in particular appears to be having a blast, adding hilarious accents and other speech tics to his delivery – most memorably as a lion. Such exaggerations work beautifully because everyone involved is committed to them (think Monty Python or Peter Sellers for similarly purposeful silliness) and it is easy to get swept up in the mood alone, even as you appreciate the work that has been done to embellish familiar material in ways that make is feel fresh.
Aesop’s Fables works on all levels, from the theatre’s investment in pandemic safety with the excellent outdoor set-up, via set and costume input from Stan Knight and Sarah Roberts, to the snappy script and performances to match. This would be production to be proud of under any circumstances, but this quality under lockdown restrictions is fantastic.