Revival of Slabolepszy classic could benefit from more subtlety

Revival of Slabolepszy classic could benefit from more subtlety

SHOW: THE RETURN OF ELVIS DU PISANIE
CAST: LIONEL NEWTON
DIRECTOR: ANDRE ODENDAAL
VENUE: THE LAAGER AT THE MARKET THEATRE COMPLEX, UNTIL 13 DECEMBER
REVIEWER: PETER FELDMAN

Paul Slabolepszy’s classic, ‘The Return of Elvis du Pisanie,’ is back on the boards after 23 years and has been re-interpreted for a new generation of theatre-goers.
Renowned actor Lionel Newton slips effortlessly into the key role of Eddie, the man obsessed with Elvis, and seems an ideal choice to take over the part, which was so immaculately established by the playwright himself in 1992. It was originally created by Slabolepszy and director, Lara Foot, as a creative outlet for Slabolepszy the actor.

The character Eddie is a dishevelled young man who grew up in the small town of Modderfontein and who happened to be an Elvis Presley fanatic. He gets married, has children and finds a job selling underfloor heating, but in an age of global warming there is not much need for this and he soon finds himself joining the line of the unemployed. He is also suffering from acute depression.
The play opens, after a prolonged silence, with Eddie standing on a street corner in Witbank where he is reminiscing about his youth. Across the road is the cinema where he used to enjoy ‘Dick Tracey’. Many years before he had carved the initials of his first love, Lydia Swanepoel, on the lamp post he is leaning on. He pops a strip of Wicks bubble gum into his mouth and laments the fact that it doesn’t taste the same as it used to. He removes it and sticks it on the lamp post.

Life has not been great. He feels he is a worthless individual and decides to commit suicide by gassing himself in his car.
He has also written a note to his wife to explain it all.
As he is waiting for the carbon monoxide to take hold and render him unconscious, he turns on the radio only to hear an Elvis song. It cheers him up and he decides to return to the cinema in Union Crescent where apparently Elvis was recently sighted.

While standing beneath the lamp post, waiting for Elvis to materialise, he reflects on his past and some amusing incidents that helped shape it.
He also recalls an incident at his home which terrified and haunted him. He realises, too, that it was Elvis who saved his life.
This one-man play, in which Newton is called upon to play a raft of characters, is tough going because not only is it tremendously wordy, but the slew of interchanging characters and various narrative links require patience and concentration from the audience, and the slow pace and long pauses do not help matters either.

There needed to be more subtlety in Newton’s physical and vocal interpretations of the different characters which pop up during the course of the narration, as these weren’t always clearly defined.
Overall, this presentation would have benefitted from more restraint. His frenetic movements, I found, distracted somewhat from the credibility of the character and I never found empathy with Eddie’s plight.
The sound and lighting were effectively utilised in this minimalist stage setting.
However, one must certainly applaud Lionel Newton’s tenacity and skill for shouldering the burden of a significant South African production that still resonates after all these years.
‘The Return of Elvis du Pisanie’ marked the official opening of the revamped Laager Theatre – and this time the seats are a tad more comfortable.

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