The greatest stage performances of the last 10 years (Part 1)

The greatest stage performances of the last 10 years (Part 1)

By Peter Tromp

Great performances in theatre productions almost always feel like little miracles taking place right in front of one, and they usually take one by surprise. Or at least they do me. There is usually that moment when I look around, to see if other people are as captivated as I am. “Am I the only one noticing the specialness of what’s happening here?” is a thought that has played in my mind many times over the years while watching great acting. In almost every instance though people can’t wait to start raving about what they saw.
Great performances hardly ever escape notice. Even when they’re covert – when they’re not the flashiest, or grabbiest things around – people respond. It warms the heart that we’re still capable of noticing – and celebrating – thespians at the absolute top of their games. Although my list is a purely subjective one – these are the performances that not even time could corrode in my mind – I will add that all of the actors on this list either won Fleur Du Cap awards, or were nominated in the year their respective productions took place.
So without further ado, takes a trip down memory lane with me and let’s revisit some of the biggest miracles that have taken place on the Cape Town stage since 2004.

Antoinette Kellerman – ‘Breathing In’ (2004)
This play by the late Reza de Wet is set in some kind of barn during the tail end of the Second Anglo Boer War where a mother tries to keep her ailing daughter awake long enough to entrance men into surrendering their last breaths so she can be revitalised.
Labelled an African Gothic fairytale at the time (if memory serves), Kellerman radiated real menace as the controlling Anna in this Marthinus Basson directed production, yet there was also something playful and beguiling about the actress’s performance.
Her character –in her micro-managing and witchy ways – recalled Prospero from ‘The Tempest’, which was ironic as Kellerman went on to play Prospero in the Afrikaans production of the Shakespeare classic, entitled ‘Die Storm’, years later.

Samantha Peo – Chicago (2004)
Still the best big production musical I have seen in my time as a theatre critic, and I’m talking about the first run. So impactful was this production that Amra-Fay Wright was even invited to join the cast of the West End and Broadway productions to reprise her memorable portrayal of Velma Kelly. To my mind, Samantha Peo was even better in her portrayal of Roxy Hart, nailing every nuance of the character while at the same time carving something out of it that was totally her own.

Sean Taylor – ‘Exits and Entrances’ (2005)
Athol Fugard’s sublime and touching tribute to Afrikaans acting great André Huguenet featured his regular collaborator Sean Taylor in the role of the great thespian. This was a very personal story by Fugard, who wrote a younger version of himself into the play (played by the wonderful Jason Ralph), with Taylor delivering one of the truly great tour de force performances of the last decade.

Chuma Sopotela – ‘Karoo Moose’ (2007)
As immersive, generous and soulful a piece of theatre as one is likely to find in any year, this Fleur du Cap and Naledi award production – still Lara Foot’s best work – became beloved by many, many people. The play never sacrificed its entrenched charm and humour even when addressing very unpleasant things about present South African society. Fleur du Cap winner Chuma Sopotela appeared to live her part onstage at times. What was most thrilling about the production was it really felt like it was breaking new ground for SA theatre, and Sopotela’s performance was one of the main reasons it was such an unqualified success.

Claire Watling – ‘Kissed By Brel’ (2007)
Claire Watling delivered a virtuoso and deeply moving performance in Geoffrey Hyland’s glorious tribute to the music of Jacques Brel. ‘Kissed By Brel’ became perhaps the most celebrated cabaret in Cape Town of the last ten years, and Watling simply astounded in her evocations of the Belgian song smith’s compositions – compositions that contain whole universes of complex emotions. At times it appeared as if the actress was drowning in the music, so invested in the subterranean undercurrents of Brel’s songs did she appear, until she reminded you every so often with a sly wink or a subtly comic gesture that she was in complete control.

Jeremy Crutchley – ‘I Am My Own Wife’ (2009)
Jeremy Crutchley delivered one of the most memorable and touching performances in this one person semi-biopic of the legendary Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German transvestite who was caught up in the great European dramas of the 20th century. From the moment Crutchley walked on stage, the audience was his, and he never let go for a moment.
The instances where great actors fail are often the ones where they go out of their way to remind one of their calibre. These are usually the performances that feel so fussed over that it can suck the oxygen right out of a room. Crutchley exhibited no such traits in ‘I Am My Own Wife’. There was a breeziness to the actor’s deliveries that let you know that he felt not only confident enough, but also soulfully in tune with the material not to opt for any kind of pompous grandstanding.

* Part 2 to follow next week.