By BRUCE DENNILL
Aida Abridged / Directed by Greg Homann / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
Aida Abridged. Add some more A-related alliteration: ambition and absurdity. Director Greg Homann’s idea to take Verdi’s opera, which takes in international conflict and cross-cultural romance and strip it down to two actors and a one-man orchestra is both daft and, cleverly handled as it is, remarkably effective.
That latter facet has much to do with the decision to keep the story away from the farce that is part and parcel of other abridged classics. There is plenty of opportunity for it – a muffled “Oh, bollocks” would be an hilarious insert into a particularly frantic segment as the king of Ethiopia stubs his toe. But amid the rush involved in portraying two royal families and a couple of feuding armies with just two actors, the story is told as close to the original as the format allows, making it an intriguing crossover between the full opera and the sort of lean festival piece most of the audience would be expecting going in.
Clint Lesch (who also handles musical direction) is Aida and a number of supporting roles, with Len-Barry Simons equally versatile as Radamés and others. Swapping costumes – largely comprising different makarapa helmets, in a stylish South African touch – and mannerisms and hitting all those marks is tricky enough, but most impressive is the duo’s facility as singers, with both handling everything from bass to soprano roles (the latter in clear, consistent falsetto) remarkably well, in both English and Italian! Simon’s tone, particularly in the lower registers, is especially noteworthy.
The set is wonderfully inventive, with a large scroll of brown paper being unrolled throughout the piece to reveal illustrations and English translations of the Italian arias being performed – an amusing and valuable visual aid that includes sight gags responsible for much of the laughter during the performance.
The production is a wonderful platform on which Lesch and Simons can showcase a huge range of skills, and both must be commended with never losing focus – at all – in a piece that requires a massive amount of stamina, physically and musically. With the focus more or less permanently on one or both of them, it is easy to overlook the contribution pianist Wessel Odendaal makes to proceedings. It is a mark of his expertise that the complicated score flows as well as it does in condensed form, and that his playing either highlights and supports an action or performance elsewhere on stage or elegantly fills a gap. There is never a distraction for either the audience or his co-stars, allowing Lesch and Simons the comfort of an unmovable foundation on which to build their performances.
This is certainly a niche concern – though it is wonderfully absurd, it is probably too lovingly respectful of the source material to be deemed escapist enough for audiences wanting to simply sit down and turn off. But its compact structure means it can be relatively easily packed up and toured, and such practicalities, along with the inventiveness in both concept and delivery, should see Aida Abridged building its audience at festivals and theatres far and wide.