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NOISES OFF (article first published : 2005-09-15)

The Drama and Performance Studies programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal are currently presenting Noises Off.

The title is theatre parlance for noises off-stage out of the audience’s sight but not out of their hearing. Michael Frayn aptly titled his brilliant and now-classic production, referring not only to the legitimate and scripted sounds but as noises the audience shouldn’t hear when something goes wrong backstage.

To add to the enjoyment of this scenario, Frayne turns his set around – not once, but twice, so that we can see what happens throughout a period of time from both a front and back stage viewpoint. It’s a convoluted situation and a props nightmare, not to mention that there are no less than eight doors through which the action must continue at breakneck speed.

Noises Off opens on the final technical/dress rehearsal of a traditional sex farce titled Nothing On. It’s nearly midnight and the cast is tired and irritable. Seated in the auditorium, the weary director less than patiently exhorts his cast to get their entrances and exits – let alone, lines - correct, nag the crew to fix doors that won’t open and actually get through the act before the following night’s opening. To make things worse, one of his cast members is deaf and has a tendency to hit the bottle!

The story of Nothing On is set in the home of a couple who are currently out of the country to avoid paying taxes. Their housekeeper is preparing to sit down with a plate of sardines and watch a gala function on television. Suddenly, her quietly ordered life falls apart and so the show continues. That plate of sardines must go down in history as forming one of the most incongruous vehicles for humour!

The first act is important in that the “play within a play” needs to be set in the audience’s minds. The second act sees the play from backstage where relationships have become strained in certain areas and former lovers are at each other’s throats. The third act reverts to front stage, by which time everything is falling apart and the actors valiantly try to keep the action going under hilarious conditions.

Having recently seen Pieter Toerien’s production of Noises Off directed by Christopher Weare at the National Arts Festival it would be unfair to make comparisons – the one is a fully-fledged professional company will full-time rehearsals and an experienced cast. The other is a student production rehearsed in far less time and presented by talented youngsters who have yet to build up the years of experience required to cope with the crispness, clarity and almost military precision that this play demands.

However, director Tamar Meskin has drawn solid performances from her student cast who make the most of the comedy and the roles are consistently sustained. Cast members include Liam Magner, Zanele Thobela (alternating with Siobhan Schulz), Clinton Small (alternating with Shaun Tarr ); Libby Allen, Sean de Klerk, Caroline Burne, Adam Doré, Kim Sanssoucie, Jacobus van Heerden. Vocal projection is good and the only people who were sometimes inaudible were Liam Magner and Zanele Thobela. I particularly enjoyed Kim Sanssoucie’s performance as the peacemaker Belinda – she brought a nice sense of elegance and control to the part.However, director Tamar Meskin has drawn solid performances from her student cast who make the most of the comedy and the roles are consistently sustained. Cast members include Liam Magner, Zanele Thobela (alternating with Siobhan Schulz), Clinton Small (alternating with Shaun Tarr ); Libby Allen, Sean de Klerk, Caroline Burne, Adam Doré, Kim Sanssoucie, Jacobus van Heerden. Vocal projection is good and the only people who were sometimes inaudible were Liam Magner and Zanele Thobela. I particularly enjoyed Kim Sanssoucie’s performance as the peacemaker Belinda – she brought a nice sense of elegance and control to the part.

The Noises Off set must be sturdily built to withstand the hammering of much knockabout humour and Mervyn McMurtry’s design stood up to the onslaught!

I did have a problem with the placing of the production in South Africa, with Libby Allen as the long-suffering housekeeper Dottie dressed in a standard domestic worker’s doek, overall and apron. Noises Off is set in England involving a struggling repertory company and the humour is particularly English. For me, the transposition doesn’t work effectively and I would argue that there is no longer any need to make theatrical situations “accessible” for South African audiences by placing scenarios in a local context. With our capacity to access international drama through movies, television channels and even cellphones nowadays, audiences now have a far stronger global appreciation than they did, even ten years ago.

Talking of costumes, I couldn’t find the logic of placing the Liam Magner as the director in bedroom slippers and, later in the play, in a costume that would have been better suited to a clown act!

However, all told Noises Off is a delightful evening’s entertainment that shouldn’t be missed. It runs at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre until September 17 with performances at 20h00. There will also be early shows on September 16 and 17 at 17h00. Tickets R35 (R15 concessions). Book through Claudette Wagner on 031 260 3134 (08h30 to 13h00 weekdays), fax 031 260 1410 or email wagnerc1@ukzn.ac.za – Caroline Smart




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