BY BILLY SUTER
THIS year has seen not only a drought on the land but also in the world of local theatre, where, other than a flood of popular and often top-notch showband entertainment, there has been hardly a trickle of drama in KwaZulu-Natal.
The situation is such that the annual Durban Theatre Awards might be held only every two years, going forward, so low is local production output.
Gloomy, indeed. But it is truly wonderful to note that August has produced a torrential downpour of relief. It has, for me anyway, been the most rewarding month for theatre in Durban for many a year.
Thanks for that must start with the legendary Pieter-Dirk Uys having given us what, in my view, amounts to his finest work to date, his memoir, The Echo of a Noise, seen at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre. What a triumph!
Then there is the 14th South African Women’s Arts Festival, presented by The Playhouse Company, now in its final weekend, which usually always offers something that excites me but which this year, sparkled brighter than ever with two drama gems and a fascinating dance work.
The good news is that the very best of these works – Scorched, a complex and moving drama of love, hate, lies, secrets and horror, which collected two Naledi Theatre Awards for acting (Ilse Klink and Ameera Patel) and for directing (Jade Bowers) – has two more performances at the Playhouse Drama: at 2.30pm and 7.30pm today (Saturday, August 19). Tickets cost R80.
I implore you to see it if you do not want to miss what I believe to be one of the finest theatre experiences of the year.
It is a play which is not always easy to watch and moved me to tears often, but will stay with me for a long time to come – and not only for an ending which drew an audible gasp from many in the audience.
The drama, by Lebanese-Canadian playwright Wajdi Mouawad, may have a loose link to the Middle East but with the world in such woe and worry at the moment its global topicality and emotional intensity carries quite a weighty punch.
In a nutshell it is the story of 22-year-old twins who, at the reading of the will of their dead mother, who had lived in silence for years, are given letters and sent on a journey to try to find relatives they did not know existed… and to discover secrets of their mother’s past in her homeland, a country mutilated by civil war.
The drama unfolds on a fascinating set by Nadine Minaar. It is dominated by suitcases, some piled high, others suspended, all linked with ropes. It all suggests journeys, both physical and of self-discovery; the tangles and knots of emotion and confusion. The red of the ropes alludes to hate, love, passion, blood-letting, anger and fear … all strong components of this drama.
The fresh, novel, innovative direction is by Bowers, the 2016 Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre, who premiered the work at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown that year.
She has her cast standing silent and unmoving on the edge of the performance space as the audience enters. Bowers then keeps all her players on stage throughout the show, having them standing or seated, unmoving, when not morphing between various roles.
The drama flashes constantly between past and present, and performances are terrific, particularly from lead actress Klink as the mother and Patel as her longtime friend. I would also single out Mpho Osei-Tutu, who is dynamite in various roles.
The production, with lighting design by Oliver Hauser and effective music composition (performed live) by Matthew MacFarlane, also features Cherae Halley, Jaques De Silva, Bronwyn van Graan and Gopala Davies.
Also wonderful at the festival was the latest Paul Slabolepszy play, Suddenly the Storm, for which Durban’s Greg King won a Naledi for his detailed, brilliant set of a home interior with a workshop. It also took Naledis for Best New South African Script (Slabolepszy) and Best Lighting Design (Wesley France).
The play tells of a squabbling ex-cop and his much younger, ditzy wife, whose lives are disrupted and changed by a death and the arrival of an enigmatic stranger.
What a joy to see Durban’s Charmaine Weir-Smith on stage again at The Playhouse, alongside Slabolepszy and Renate Stuurman, all of them excellent under Bobby Heaney’s direction.
A drama that starts with a light tone and ends with a powerful emotional punch, Suddenly the Storm is highly recommended should it come your way again.
Also of note at the festival was David Gouldie’s dance work, Handbag (Don’t Clutch Me Too Tight..), featuring the Playhouse Dance Residency and Flatfoot Dance Company.
Based on the stories of women who live at The Association For The Aged, the work was based on interviews with the elderly. Moments of joy, loss and remembrance were explored and celebrated with the dancers, all in white, using these stories and emotions as inspiration. Some wonderful moments.
Thanks, Playhouse Company, for some great time in the theatre!