By BRUCE DENNILL
For Once: Why Should I Hesitate / Starring William Kentridge and Kyle Shepherd / The Centre For The Less Good Idea, Maboneng, Johannesburg
William Kentridge is an artist – known for charcoal on paper artworks of all sizes, plus animations, projections and all manner of unique partnerships with artists in other fields – of formidable international fame. He is also a man of gentle charm, self-deprecating humour and the capacity to make spoken word and poetry performances accessible, intriguing and amusing.
Why Should I Hesitate is a collaboration with jazz musician Kyle Shepherd and, as Kentridge puts it, “part rehearsed, part well and part unrehearsed, and there are no guarantees that you will be able to tell the difference.” Cynics will say that that statement might be true of jazz music, but art lovers of any stripe would likely appreciate the sort of intellectual jazz that’s goes on when Kentridge takes the lead here, reading words from a notebook that are sometimes simple plain poetic speech and at other times arrayed in patterns that sound wonderful but mean little or sound ordinary but carry great weight.
As he pauses between lines, he looks at Shepherd to provide a rhythmic or musical cue to continue, with the pianist seemingly seeking the same prompt from the artist, and the pair feeding off each other to drive their shared pieces forward, with Shepherd adapting his playing to be mellifluous or jagged to suit the energy or intent of the line he’s accompanying.
When Kentridge leaves the stage to allow Shepherd’s music to complement his animated visuals – the combination telling a powerful story that, because it is wordless, will probably be interpreted in a slightly different way by each audience member – that theme continues, with the style, pace and vitality of the music helping to change or confirm the mood of each unfolding scene. The artwork combines surrealism – a coffee plunger becomes a drill, the passage of which passes through not only the depths of the Earth, but different contexts in the story – and the familiarity of everyday settings and actions, with depictions of Johannesburg’s mine dumps often setting the stories within a few kilometres of where the performance is taking place.
There’s a fascination in watching these films, with subject matter steeped in history (among other things, the injustices heaped on those discriminated against under apartheid) but also in the emotive beauty of objects and creatures given life by Kentridge’s rough outlines and shading and the unnatural but still authentic movements they achieve via the animation process. A fluttering bird in a box – just a short snippet in a much longer narrative – is particularly affecting
Kentridge and Shepherd have co-created a chamber opera called Waiting For The Sybil, which premiered in Rome last year, and they perform the libretto of the piece together as part of Why Should I Hesitate, with the words read by Kentridge, who is pains to point out that nobody wants him to actually sing.
The closing section is a performance of Kurt Schwitter’s now nearly century-old sound poem Ursonate, which Kentridge fills with effervescence and vitality, his face and voice active and enlivening as he delivers what is essentially gibberish in front of a shimming backdrop of book pages adorned with moving shapes of different colours, moving human figures or though-provoking standalone phrases and, at the end, a gumboot/tap dancer and trombonist.
If asked on exiting to explain the plot (or some similar mechanism) of what you’d just seen in Why Should I Hesitate, you’d struggle. But if, while watching, you’d been open to embracing rich creativity, warmth and world-class artistic craft, you’d heartily recommend the value and rewards of that curiosity and investment.