Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Real Performances: National Arts Festival

Yann Marussich in Bain Brise pic by Suzy Bernstein
It will take Yann Marussich over an hour to step out of the bath. It's the shards of glass he is buried beneath that prevent this usually swift action, turning the relaxing experience of being in a bath into a risky one. Common gestures are prolonged and, more importantly, now have consequences. Bain Brise, a performance art piece on the main programme of the National Arts Festival (NAF), presents a visually and sensually compelling scene.

The glass crackles and ripples as the Swiss performance artist adjusts his naked body beneath its weight. With only one free arm, he manages to uncover his head and torso, tossing the glass on to the floor. It shatters on impact, scattering the debris at our feet. Watching this is risky too. We step back, move to a standing position.

It is in the quiet moments when Marussich is inert and takes a break from this self-imposed struggle that are the most poignant. It is only during these intervals that we grasp the real physical weight of this performance. We are witnessing a real situation, not a contrived one - though it is set up. This creates a kind of intimacy. It is one that extends beyond observing someone naked, bathing, or the fact that we are informally gathered around him - there is no stage or seating. We share in his struggle because we are as bound, immured to it, as he is. And the line between us and him is suspended, blurred.

Unfortunately, when Marussich eventually frees himself of the glass and prepares to step out of the clawfoot bath, he reinstates the barrier separating us; glaring at us, as if questioning, rejecting, challenging our imposing, hungry gazes. It's as if the scene was of our design and not his.

In the makeshift theatres in school halls and classrooms that pop up during the NAF in Grahamstown, the barrier dividing the stage and the seats seems slightly less defined. The stages aren't elevated, they are located on floors, covered in black materials. As a result the line between the stage and the floor is typically indiscernible. Sparsely placed lights and props demarcate it as performance space. Yet the actors seem keenly aware of this invisible boundary, though they crave, seek out ways of transgressing it. The transgression occurs when their fictions appear real. It is not only for our benefit but for their own; their acumen is measured against their ability to become lost in their own fictions.

Given this drive to turn fiction into reality, perhaps it is not unexpected that the only obvious theme uniting many of theatre productions at the festival centred on the fictions imposed on people or the fictions they adopt in an effort to make sense of their world or to retreat from it. Certainly, many plays presented characters existing in isolation and the fictions they construct to feed their alienation.
In The Last Moustache Heiner Schmidt (played by Tim Plewman) is trapped in a secret bunker below one of Hitler's safehouses. This hovel serves as his dressing-room; he's an actor charged by the Nazi top brass to play Hitler, who has been killed - "confettied", he wryly observes. It is the role of a lifetime; the man he is playing is an artful performer. The quality of his performances has consequences in reality; he can sustain or end the war.

We initially encounter him off stage - ironically we are not privy to his onstage performances until the end. He addresses us, the audience, as if we are there, though of course, in this fiction we do not exist - he can only play to an audience, since there is no sense in performing without them.
To survive the ordeal of being a prisoner, he transplants himself into the staged world, though he moves between stages - the one where he enacts the story of his life and the one where he pretends to be Hitler. In this way the stage has become inescapable; there is no reality beyond it. Heiner has bought into his own act too; the conclusion of the play hinges on his belief that acting is the only way he can wield power over reality. He interacts with Hitler, too, as if he still exists, via a dummy, with which he converses and dances. It may just be a device to ensure a separation between himself and Hitler.

Being confined to the bunker aids this slippery interplay between reality and fiction. Written by Greg Viljoen, this is a sophisticated play, one of few at the festival that engages with the mechanics of theatre and its relationship to reality. Largely, theatre-makers seem to be less concerned with theatre itself, its characteristics, which are complex, and more consumed with generating fictions that almost deny their art form. It's as if our theatre-makers have bought into the illusions they generate without stepping out of them and into the real space that they occupy between reality and fiction. This may be why South African theatre has stagnated.

Mike Van Graan's highly anticipated Writer's Block perhaps best encapsulates this state of affairs. Steeped in the protest play model, where everything is in service of a clear political message, it reads as a product from our past, though Van Graan does evince a degree of self-consciousness about writing. Hence the title, which refers to a predicament in which the main protagonist, Terry Rankin (played by Jennifer Steyn) finds herself. Van Graan implies that her writer's block is caused by the fact that she is caught between places; South Africa, her country of origin, where she was an activist during the struggle years, and the US, where she is now settled and teaches creative writing.

 It is also her inability to "forgive" past crimes committed by the apartheid regime that have stifled her creativity. Like Heiner in Viljoen's The Last Moustache, she also exists in isolation, is disconnected from the world. This may be linked to her incapability to move forward and embrace the future - she is disillusioned with the corruption, ineptitude and growing inequality in South Africa.
She is only able to return to South Africa and find forgiveness for those that killed her partner through writing stories; are they fictions that have sustained her alienation or will they bring her closer to the world she has left behind?

It is kind of odd for Van Graan to articulate the theme of forgiveness through a white character, whose position as a victim is not exactly uncomplicated. This aspect is never touched on. The sense of alienation is not an uncommon one for white South Africans to probe.
For the paranoid mother played by Toni Morkel in The Last Show, alienation comes in the form of being forced to live outside Dainfern, an affluent gated community in northern Joburg. The "real" world is a scary place for her; living in Brixton she finds herself surrounded by Africans who speak languages she doesn't understand. Her son, played by Roberto Pombo, is her only link to reality; he translates the news to her and attempts to lessen her anxiety by re-enacting childhood fictions. Nevertheless she doesn't ever feel at ease; she becomes more anxious and deliberately sets out to destabilise her son, the only barrier to her complete degeneration into unchecked paranoia.

This is a one-dimensional farce that parodies a brand of fear and alienation experienced by an older generation of whites. As the mother occupies a space outside of reality, or resists it, it makes sense to package this play in the mode of a stylised farce. But the work feels empty and superficial and you are left wanting to see past the cocoon this woman inhabits - the reality that exists beyond her fiction and beyond the newspaper headlines that make her recoil from the world. In this way the product cannot get beyond the condition that confines its central protagonist.
This has ensured that there is no tension or friction in this work; one thing follows neatly from the next. Surely her descent into madness occurred in Dainfern, though the suburb provided a more robust cocoon then the makeshift one she constructs in Brixton? There is also something troubling about the idea that the "reality" denied in this work is rooted in a supposedly bad neighbourhood where Africans live. It's like believing that you can only experience the "real" Joburg if you visit its inner city. In this way playwright Gwydion Beynon conflates reality with otherness.

In Crazy in Love, written by Rob Murray, we are confronted by another demented parent, played by Andrew Buckland, whose distorted worldview forces him and his daughter (Liezl de Kock) to exist on the fringes of society. Unlike The Last Show, it is not set in a particular context; it is an abstract farce meditating on loss, or absence. However, the daughter does also fall victim to her father's madness, building a shrine to her absent mother, who the pair have dedicated their existence to tracking down. Their journey and hunt is fed by a fiction the father has sustained about this absent woman and their connection. His fixation with her is thus fuelled by denial, which the fiction supports. The duo are only released from it by confronting the reality of their warped existence.
Anthea Moys vs Grahamstown pic by Paul Greenway

It would be easy to project a socio-political reading on to all these products; alienation, loss and intergenerational divides are the calling cards of our times. However, given that over 200 productions are staged daily at the festival, it is impossible to come to grips with the underlying themes uniting the work at NAF, for the simple reason that you cannot see everything and there is such a cacophony of expression, worldviews, mediums and levels of engagement that gaining any clean insight into our cultural landscape is impossible. This is exacerbated by the fact that theatre is privileged at this festival; so ultimately what this platform offers is a close reading of that sector.
This year the theatre fraternity may remember the festival as being a retrospective one; with restagings of old works such as The Island, two versions of Woza Albert! and Prince Lamla's excellent rendition of Asinamali. The staleness associated with this discipline was enhanced by the fact that the main programme was dominated by established figures such as Pieter-Dirk Uys, Van Graan and Mbongeni Ngema and a play adapted from Zakes Mda's novel Madonna of Excelsior.

The main action is to be found on the Fringe theatre programme - the visual arts and dance sector have fairly uninspiring line-ups - but the quality is so uneven that it's like playing Russian roulette. In this way seeing awful work at the festival is part of the experience. The list of lacklustre works at this year's festival was longer than those that excelled - but perhaps that is the nature of festivals.

While alienation and an evasion of reality defined many works, Nicholas Spagnoletti's Special Thanks to Guests from Afar and Nick Warren's Dirt, presented characters that were untouched by an older generation's supposed "madness" and cocooning sensibilities, forging unexpected affiliations across physical, class, racial and social divides. In Dirt, a vain English soap star and ladies' man, a neurotic Joburger and a new father reach a mutual understanding about life and friendship after an amusing road trip, steered by the dynamic and super-talented James Cairns, who inhabits all three characters with precision. A white gay professor from Cape Town, an asexual German physiotherapist and a successful black woman based in Zurich, test the boundaries of their unconventional connections during a wedding in Special Guests from Afar. Relationships don't look like they used to and the conditions that tie us to a community aren't fixed, suggests Spagnoletti.

But, once again it is a performance artist who really pushes relational dynamics to an extreme. In Anthea Moys versus The City of Grahamstown, the artist sets up a variety of competitions between herself and teams or individuals that allow for real-life games or performances with uncertain, though sometimes predictable outcomes. But it is the activities that precede these stand-offs that carry the most gravitas. Documented in footage on view in the Thomas Pringle Hall, Moys is seen interacting with the various communities of Grahamstown as she attempted to gain the skills - playing chess, the bagpipes, dancing - required for the big face-off with the hamlet. This documentation and the work itself, reveals how people create a sense of belonging through extramural activities such as playing soccer, chess or ballroom dancing.
The work exposes how ties to the community are built according to where people position themselves and to what degree they are willing to immerse themselves in those positions and retain them. Moys appears chameleon-like as she assumes each new uniform and activity, yet she remains on the outside, in the same position: she is always the artist, the performer. Maybe that role is inescapable. - published July 14, in The Sunday Independent. 

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