PETER TROMP chatted with celebrated theatre artists SYLVAINE STRIKE and ANDREW BUCKLAND, who for the first time ever, has collaborated on a production.
Strike, the 2006 Standard Bank Young Artist Winner, directs 1986 Standard Bank Young Artist Winner, Buckland, in ‘Tobacco And The Harmful Effects Thereof’, which is currently being showcased on the Barney Simon stage at the Market Theatre until March 6.
THE DIRECTOR – SYLVAINE STRIKE
What inspired the idea behind the show?
William Harding, who is our resident playwright at Fortune Cookie Theatre Company, was inspired by Chekhov’s short story ‘On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco’ and created his new version of it, compiling sources from other authors. He presented me with a first draft, we reworked and refined it and the rest is history.
You’re known for your innovative theatrical style and unconventional stories. As an artist, what comes first: content, or form? And how do you go about marrying the two?
For some reason I have always started my creative process from a form, a vision of a particular thing that haunts me and won’t let go. An example of this would be the revolving door in ‘Black and Blue’, or the miniature spinning stage in ‘The Travellers’. When I received “Tobacco” as a text, my mind immediately hooked onto a lecture podium that morphs into many other things. Once my form is clear, and the stylistic world makes sense, the content comes organically and is often highlighted by the type of actor I am working with.
Why did you choose Andrew Buckland for the lead role and what has it been like working with him on the show?
From the moment I read the text, I knew that this role was to be Andrew’s. The text itself is dense and not written to incorporate the body, as it is primarily an intellectual piece of writing. I knew what I wanted to transform it into; it was going to be a highly visual and physically engaging piece that could carry the weight of great texts by luminaries such as Kafka, Chekhov and Jane Austen. Andrew has the intellectual, emotional and physical intelligence I needed in my actor. It’s rare to find all three skills combined to this extent in a single performer.
It is becoming common knowledge that I refer to Andrew as a “Rolls Royce”; in fact, this is my nickname for him, and I call him Rolls for short. Need I say more? The man is a joy, a machine of invention and generous output. We have wanted to collaborate for so long and we completely loved working together.
“Last night a show changed my life.”
When I was 16 I saw the Ionesco double bill ‘The Bald Prima Donna’ and ‘The Lesson’ at the miniscule Théâtre de la Huchette in Paris. When I left the theatre, I felt as if I had had a massive epiphany. It lay in the bold stylistic choices, borderline insanity and poetic imagery which both these plays explored. Suddenly, I felt illuminated by how much more a stylised play could gut an audience, and I told myself that when I made my own work one day, I would respect this epiphany and leave realism to filmmakers.
What would you say are your enduring artistic preoccupations in terms of subject matter?
Solitude, little human triumphs over the self, and hope.
As a theatremaker in South Africa, what would you say are the constant challenges you face?
There are quite simply not enough funds available for theatremakers and very little support to ensure that established theatremakers can continue to create from the point where they left off. I find myself applying for funding each time I have to make something new. Every time this happens, it’s like starting over again, at the bottom of the ladder, because no one is ever guaranteed funding irrespective of how established one is in the industry. Patronage is a thing of the past. Artists need patrons, it’s that simple.
THE ACTOR – ANDREW BUCKLAND
Tell us about ‘Tobacco And The Harmful Effects Thereof’. What can audiences look forward to with the show?
The play is an extraordinary piece of writing and adaptation for a start. William has crafted an absolute gift for an actor out of the words of Chekhov, Kafka, Beckett, Andre Breton, Oscar Wilde, Max Wall and many others, including his own hand. But on top of this the story captures the wonderful contradictions and paradoxes and mysterious opposites contained in a really passionate relationship. The play deals with a long-term relationship and how the fervour of love for the partner is matched by the fear and anger for the same person. Anyone who has ever been in love and/or in a long-term relationship, including a marriage, will identify and love this work. And then there is the mastery of Sylvaine Strike…
Tell us about your character and how you have gone about realising him.
Sylvaine, who is supremely gifted in working with actors, has such skill in the use of the red nose, simple clown as a creative mechanism for the creation of character and physical performance material that it has been a revelation to me as an actor. The process demands such release of ego and confrontation of one’s own vulnerability. The result is very liberating and in a profound way transforming. Ivan is an ordinary man with an extraordinary love of life and laughter who has been caught, as much by his own foibles as those of his wife, in a terrible trap of fear and frustration in his relationship. He is thrown between the extremes of passionate, tender love for her and murderous anger at her treatment of him.
You’re famed for creating and starring in your own work, but you’re also an “actor for hire,” if you will, in that you regularly appear in other peoples’ productions. Do you approach each differently?
I think the idea is to approach each work with an eye and ear to the very specific and most times unique demands of the work itself. In a work like this I can comfortably give responsibility utterly over to the care of the director and focus on character process whereas with works in which I am one of the collaborative creators I tend to maintain a part of my focus on the whole.
What have your impressions been of Sylvaine’s work until now, and what has it been like working with her on ‘Tobacco…’?
We have been trying to organise a collaboration for years as my wife Janet and I are both huge fans of her work. (She has) such finely crafted control of all the elements of theatre and such a deft hand with subtle transformation and an understanding and love of the ‘magic’ in theatre, rare qualities to be treasured. “Tobacco” has been a complete revelation to me and has significantly shifted the way I see myself as an actor. The stakes are high for Sylvaine and her care of the work and her actors is unquestioned. I refer to her as the Maestro.
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