Exceptional slice of theatre

Godfrey Johnson in Vaslav, in which he touches on the life and troubled times of legendary dancer, Vaslav Njinsky. Final Durban performances are at 8pm on Friday (May 31) and 2pm on Sunday (June 2). Book at Computicket.

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Stage: Vaslav – Rhumbelow Theatre, Cunningham Road, Umbilo
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
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ROLAND Stansell, entertainment co-ordinator and manager of Durban’s popular Rhumbelow Theatre franchise, is the first to admit he has taken a bold move presenting Vaslav. It is a show he labels as a “festival piece” and which differs greatly from the showband or otherwise light entertainment that is usually staged at these venues.

Hats off to him for that, as Vaslav is an exceptional, gripping, rather unique slice of theatre which, structured through drama, music and song, is a dark, haunting and poignant solo work from Capetonian Godfrey Johnson.

Johnson is no stranger to the Rhumbelow circuit, having often performed sophisticated cabarets that showcase his vocal and piano talents, saluting the likes of Jacques Brel and Leonard Cohen, among others.

In fact, from June 7 to 9, at the Umbilo Rhumbelow, he will team with fellow pianist Nicholas McDiarmid for Pianomania, a show meshing classics and popular pieces. Johnson will also present Noel, Cole and Me, featuring the music of Noel Coward and Cole Porter, also in June.

Vaslav sees Johnson in a whole new light, by turns melancholic and upbeat, amusingly camp and distraught, often almost heartbreakingly vulnerable. He is superb, truly dazzling under the guidance of acclaimed director Lara Bye and movement coach Fiona du Plooy.

The three of them, as a team, have created a beguiling reflection on the genius and madness associated with legendary Russian-Polish ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky. The script, which has Johnson depicting various characters, is by Bye, Johnson and writer Karen Jeynes (inspired by Nijinsky’s diaries).

If the ballet connection raises an eyebrow, note that, no, Johnson does not pirouette around the stage, rather only alluding to choreography and assuming some iconic poses here and there. Instead he uses his actions, voice and considerable musical talent to vividly sketch Nijinsky reflecting on his life and times while in a mental asylum in Switzerland, where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

Through Johnson’s dialogue and original music and lyrics, which he and his team created – music that nods to Stravinksy, Rachmaninov, Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Satie, and also jetes towards early jazz and original flourishes – the audience gets a glimpse of the troubled legend that was one of the greatest and among the most controversial dancers of the early 20th century.

Nijinsky, who died in London in 1950, following kidney failure at the age of 61, felt the onset of schizophrenia in 1919. He was a man hailed as both a genius and a curiosity by then, and for the next three decades was in and out of institutions. He never danced in public again.

Godfrey Johnson in Vaslav, directed by Lara Bye.

Vaslav sees Johnson touching on the dancer’s isolation, his sexuality and spirituality, his childhood, his passion for dance and audacious choreography. It also reflects on Nijinsky’s big stage successes and controversies, his regrets and fears, his troubled marriage, and his preoccupation with erstwhile lover and Ballets Russes founder Sergei Diaghilev.

It is a powerful piece, deservedly nominated for three Fleur du Cap Awards in 2015, and spurred a standing ovation from its (sadly, small) opening night audience in Durban on Wednesday.

The work is being presented in Durban on a raised platform in front of the stage at the Umbilo Rhumbelow Theatre, making the setting more intimate and, in keeping with the subject matter, more suitably claustrophobic. The stage has only an upright piano, a lamp and scattered red notebooks – Nijinsky’s diaries.

Adding embellishment is excellent, moody, shadowy lighting by Durban’s award-winning Tina le Roux. It is prone to unpredictable, random flashings which heighten the sense of a fractured mentality. In other moments – using only a stark, suspended, single light bulb, or only a desk lamp on top of the piano – Le Roux effectively intensifies the sense of alienation and isolation.

Since its debut at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2014, Vaslav has received high praise from audiences and critics alike, and has attracted invitations from producers in Sweden and Canada.

For sure, it is not likely to appeal to the masses or even the usual Rhumbelow patron, but anyone with a taste for discerning theatre or willing to take a chance on something out of their commercial comfort zone will be more than adequately rewarded by sparing the 70 minutes (no interval) it takes for this award-worthy stage work to unfold.

It is a work that will stay in my mind for some time to come, so strong is its impact and the power, rawness and nuances of Johnson’s performance.

NOTE WELL: There are only two more Durban performances –at 8pm on Friday (May 31) and 2pm on Sunday (June 2) – and I strongly recommend you book. Tickets cost R150 (R130 for pensioners) at Computicket or by calling 082 499 8636.

A promotional image for the Fleur du Cap Award-nominated Vaslav, starring Godfrey Johnson.

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