By BRUCE DENNILL
Hedwig And The Angry Inch / Directed by Elizma Badenhorst / Pieter Torien’s Montecasino Theatre, Fourways, Johannesburg 7.5
A now 20-year-old stage show, Hedwig And The Angry Inch – set in communist East Berlin and a small town near a military base in Kansas – still feels edgy and progressive. Much of that has to do with the entrenched punk ethos that drives and supports the piece and which is embodied – with astounding dedication and energy – by Paul du Toit as Hedwig Robinson.
The piece is unconventional in a number of ways, and initially, it feels like slick, high-end drag cabaret rather than a rock musical, with the script adapted to bawdily (and hilariously) incorporate local references from the theatre owner to the architecture of the venue and Du Toit smirking and sneering lasciviously. This segment perfectly sets the tone – the audience is primed for the complexity, searing honesty and simmering rage that is kneaded into every scene (plus the poignancy that comes later) – but it slightly delays the development of the characters. This could be a concern for audiences who have not seen the film, which includes a fair bit more exposition – though the general response of the opening night crowd suggested they’d kept up easily enough. There is also a dip in pace around the time Du Toit leaves the stage for his first costume change, and an occasional lack of clarity lyrically during some of the noisier parts of the songs and in the recorded part of the soundtrack (mostly the sound of Hedwig’s ex-boyfriend, rock star Tommy Gnosis, performing an arena gig next-door to her trailer).
But those are the only minor niggles in an otherwise sparkling production. Niall Griffin’s set, though compact (Hedwig and her assistant/husband Yitzhak, played by Genna Galloway, spend the entire show in a caravan-sized space) is deliciously detailed, packed with the paraphernalia that a transgender East German rock singer and a Jewish Croatian drag queen might require to put on a show and maintain their characters. The live band, adroitly led by Wessel Odendaal, is cleverly incorporated into the surroundings, perched on scaffolding above and behind the action, making for a powerful visual and aural combination.
That phrase applies directly to Du Toit as Hedwig as well. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime character for the actor and he puts in a powerhouse performance for which he has already been recognised with a number of awards. The role requires nothing less than total commitment and Du Toit makes it all – the brash posturing, the casual abuse of the loyal Yitzhak, the more ore less non-stop movement, the lewd human and the full-on rock singing – look easy. It’s a showcase of a range of skills that few actors possess and fewer still can deliver so convincingly. And the impact of his delivery is perhaps more notable still given the temptation – and if not that the opportunity – to hide behind the props, the make-up and the glitter, letting them do a little more of the work.
Galloway is a fantastic foil for her leading man-woman, bullied out of the spotlight for the bulk of the scenes but more than holding her own in the vocal stakes, with strong, high harmonies and the occasional pure, clear solo. And it is Yitzhak’s interactions with the abrasive but magnetic Hedwig that hint at the latter’s largely well-hidden soft edges. It’s a clever writing and storytelling trick, bolstered here by intelligent casting.
Stephen Trask’s music and lyrics have not aged a day, paying homage to Seventies punk and alternative rock but sounding fresh, original and of a standalone style relative to other stage musicals. And, as in the film version of this story, the sequence where Hedwig sings The Origin Of Love in front of an animated storyline by illustrator Emily Hubley is an emotional high point in the show.
No corners are cut here to make this prejudice-challenging story any easier to watch for audience members with any issues whatsoever with LGBTQ individuals, staunch punk principles or unapologetic embracing of the differences of whatever “the other” is relative to the person watching. In that regard – and kudos to its reliably brave director Elizma Badenhorst on this count – it both challenges and instructs, even as it asks its audience to withhold superficial judgements.
Hedwig And The Angry Inch is aggressive and affecting; brazen and bruising. Go on – wig out.