By BRUCE DENNILL
Gertrude Stein And A Companion / Directed by Chris Weare / Auto & General Theatre On The Square, Sandton, Johannesburg
An intimate piece that takes place in a single room and a carefully delineated emotional space, Gertrude Stein And A Companion tells, more or less, the story suggested in its title. What seems a very dry title soon proves a clever bit of misdirection.
Gertrude Stein – an American in Paris; a successful author, poet and close friend of era-defining artistic superstars from Ernest Hemingway to Pablo Picasso in an age where being an influencer actually meant something – is as confident, bolshy and full of life as you’d expect her to be (even thought the timing of the narrative means she’s, er, dead). But it is her long-term partner, Alice Toklas, who is the more practically capable of the pair. Without both Toklas’ steadiness and her caustic, sometimes brutal insights, Stein would never have been afforded the time and space to focus on her pursuits and relationships with other influential folk.
The script covers a limited part of the pair’s life together (though the action takes place shortly after Stein has passed away), with reference to what came before and a focus on their relationship and individual frames of mind through many of their most significant moments together. It’s wordy without ever being long-winded, often mirroring the cadences of Stein’s writing, and both monologues and conversations are enlivened by both historical interest (the artistic community that frequented their Paris home included some of the biggest names in the history of art and literature) and wit, with the best retorts and punchlines often coming from the less celebrated Toklas.
Shirley Johnston (as Stein) and Lynita Crofford (as Toklas) get right under the skin of their respective characters. There are no gimmicks and novelties (other than, perhaps, the shading of Crofford’s top lip to represent Toklas’ always-evident moustache). Rather, through clever period costumes – Stein died in 1946 – consistent accents and speech patterns and subtle but definitive mannerisms, the two actresses unveil the strength of Stein and Toklas’s bond, the profound pleasure the pair took in each others’ company, and the way their very different natures complemented each other, understanding the strangths and the shortcomings of both themselves and each other.
It’s a simultaneously gentle and incisive bit of biographical theatre, recalling and celebrating an age when art and artists were more readily given their due as sophisticates and game-changers. And it’s a wonderful picture of an alternative sort of romance, where an intellectual and philosophical connection is a thing of complex, unconventional beauty.