By Peter Tromp
2013 was a banner year for local theatre in Cape Town, with so many standout productions that I had real difficulty whittling this list down to only ten productions. This was my tenth year of being privileged enough to cover theatre in Cape Town, and I can honestly say that it was the best one I have yet experienced.
PS: This list is ordered in chronological fashion.
‘Rooiland’ – Baxter Flipside
Dramas about prison culture in the Western Cape have come to feel like a subgenre in recent years, so familiar have the elements in them become. Yet, ‘Rooiland’ felt different, almost definitive. It was far removed from the purely by the numbers (no pun intended) evocations of subhuman prison life that we have seen thus far. Jaco Bouwer’s is one of the most harrowing plays you’ll ever see, yet there was an almost subtle, and very human poetry at work.
Bouwer infused ‘Rooiland’ with a gravity and a force that really causes the quasi mythical overtones of Tertius Kapp’s prose to resonate on an almost cosmic level. He was especially deft in his handling of his actors, all of whom imbued their characters with vibrant life.
Almost all of the complex undercurrents of the play was reflected in the almost heartbreakingly expressive face of Charlton George, who delivered the best performance of his career.
‘The Miser’ – Baxter Flipside
Sylvaine Strike directed a stellar cast in the Molière comedy ‘The Miser’, which humorously magnified the madness of a father’s greed, paranoia and suspicion. Strike’s first play to be presented in Cape Town since the underrated ‘The Travellers’, ‘The Miser’ glided along and went straight for one’s pleasure centre, while uncompromisingly elucidating the way in which some of humanity’s worst qualities still contaminate our daily existence. Lionel Newton was on top form in the lead role, a self-absorbed demon suffused with the ageless avarice of a Scrooge and the more contemporary narcissism of a Larry David.
‘Same Time Next Year’ – Kalk Bay Theatre
This show told the story of two people, both married to others, who meet by chance at a country inn, have an affair, fall in love and then agree to meet once a year at the same time at the same place. Bernard Slade’s unusual love story is suffused with delicious wit, and a welcome moral complexity, all of which were marvellously translated on stage by director Christopher Weare. >>>>>> displayed and the absolutely beguiling charm and chemistry of its two stars, Julie Hartley and Paul Du Toit.
‘Skierlik’ – Baxter Studio
This exhilarating, but ultimately heartbreaking one-man show was the Zabalaza Community Theatre Festival winner for 2013, and was subsequent to that triumph granted a professional run. Written and performed by the astonishing Phillip Dikotla, ‘Skierlik’ was based on the horrific racially motivated shootings that took place in a rural North West Province informal settlement in 2008. Nothing in local theatre in 2013 played like a state of a nation address quite like this evocation of rural black impoverishment and feeling betrayed by those in power.
‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie’ – Baxter Flipside
For a play with very specific social and political viewpoints ‘My Name Is Rachel Corrie’s’ effects on one were emotionally cumulative rather than manipulating. Very often with works that have a very specific underlying political stance you can almost see and hear the gear levers being manipulated and clacking into place to get one to feel a certain way. ‘Rachel Corrie’ was far more subtle, almost casual, and it made its devastating dénouement all the more impactful.
That is because so much of the writings in the play come from its source, namely the diary entries and emails of Corrie, an American activist who died in Gaza in 2003 when she was crushed underneath an Israeli armoured bulldozer while engaging in a peaceful protest. The prose of the play had a natural, almost hypnotic rhythm that together with the focused, mostly unfussy staging of director Jaqueline Dommisse, really allowed one to slip into the narrative. The show then proceeded to capture one’s undivided attention for every one of its uninterrupted 90 minutes, a spectacular feat for a one person show of this nature.
Despite the lucid wondrousness of the words, the play wouldn’t have felt half as thrilling, and entertaining, if Kate Liquorish’s performance wasn’t so extraordinary. Something that could have felt overbearing and laced with self-importance in anyone else’s hands felt casual, almost effortless in hers.
‘Vigil’ – Fugard Studio
Yet another scintillating two-hander from Chris Weare. ‘Vigil’ featured Graham Hopkins as Kemp, a hilariously self-centred and shallow neurotic for the ages who finds himself, through his own errors and inattentiveness, in a life-and-death situation with profound and far-reaching consequences. Vanessa Cooke’s Grace is the aging aunt he has travelled cross-country to be with on her death-bed. But Kemp’s bedside manner leaves a lot to be desired: “I am concerned about your health these past few days. It seems to be improving,” is just one example of Morris Panych’s sparkling dialogue. Weare infused Panych’s irresistibly cynical confection with a wonderful dark absurdity and Hopkins and Cooke were simply a great comedic team.
‘Hayani’ – Baxter Studio
This two-hander featured actors Atandwa Kani and Nat Ramabulana exploring the meaning of “home” in a modern South African context. ‘Hayani,’ which means ‘home’ in Venda, charted the life journeys of these two real life friends against the backdrop of a country going through massive social change and rediscovering itself. It was one of the most emotionally affecting and life affirming productions of the year.
‘The Frontiersmen’ – Alexander Bar
Louis Viljoen’s latest play ‘The Frontiersmen’ featured two amoral capitalist vultures, played magnificently by Nic Pauling and Mark Elderkin, going about their way causing chaos in ordinary people’s lives. Dark, poignant, and featuring lacerating humour by the bucket full, ‘The Frontiersmen’ was a chilling evocation of business running amok – in this case the property development industry in South Africa.
‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’ – Artscape Arena
Fred Abrahamse’s production of this Tennessee Williams play was an unqualified success in the way it so gracefully and artfully grappled with the spectre that at some point haunts us all. I’m of course talking about the disquieting topic of death. Along with designer Marcel Meyer, Abrahamse employed style to convey both the solemn, almost airless oppression of death, but also the vibrancy with which we, the living try to make the best of our days.
As widowed millionairess Flora “Sissy” Goforth, spending her last days dictating her memoirs at her Italian Riviera estate, Jennifer Steyn delivered probably the best performance of the year.
‘Sunset Boulevard’ – Theatre On The Bay
2013 was undoubtedly the year of the musical. There were so many productions of real quality that it felt as if we were in the midst of a very really renaissance. None shone brighter though than Paul Warwick Griffin’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of the Billy Wilder cinema classic. It offered locals an uncompromising insight into the ugly side of movie stardom and the fragile psyches that populate Tinseltown.