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COUPÉ (article first published : 2006-07-4)

Three square metres. That’s all the cast of Coupé has in terms of performance space. Even less, actually, as the bulk of the action takes place on a revolve which is divided into two areas back-to-back. Once you add on bunk beds which cleverly fold under to create a dining car, the performance space diminishes even more.

Coupé premiers at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and the setting is a coupé on board an overnight train to somewhere. Designer Chen Nakar is to be congratulated on a brilliant set which operates on a multitude of levels.

What director Sue Pam-Grant, actors Sylvaine Strike, Brian Webber and Gerard Bester as the commuters and Toni Morkel as the shunter achieve in this comparatively miniscule area is nothing short of astoundingly skilful theatre. The rhythmn of the train is kept up throughout on various percussive surfaces. It must have been a nightmare – but surely a hilarious one – to rehearse.

Long-term Durban audiences will remember Toni Morkel from her appearances in some of the NAPAC Dance Company productions. In a shunter’s uniform, she moves the revolve as the train progresses through a series of stops and starts. At one stage she spins it round at top speed to mark the passage of time in a particularly amusing scene when all three commuters are asleep in their bunk beds. I am still wondering how Gerard Bester gets his tall body into that middle bunk or narrowly avoids decapitating himself on the dividing door! Declan Randall’s lighting design aids the imagery of a tunnel and the changes of light during the journey. Philip Miller’s original music lends atmosphere and excitement to the production.

Sylvaine Strike is the winner of the 2006 Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Drama. The idea for her commissioned play came to her while commuting on the Paris Metro. She had a vivid image of a journey shared by strangers in a close, confined space.

In Coupé, the atmosphere is set from the beginning – as the audience settle, we are catapulted immediately through sound effects into a busy station with trains arriving and departing accompanied by the invariably inaudible announcements. Then we meet the three completely diverse characters who will be sharing a coupé together. They are a volatile French woman (Sylvaine Strike) in a springbok skin jacket, a dysfunctional KwaZulu-Natalian (Gerard Bester) who collects spices from takeaway outlets and a heavily overweight cat-loving Afrikaner (Brian Webber). They communicate with each other in their own languages but the meaning is abundantly clear. Their cramped train ride also becomes a personal journey with an ultimate catharsis.

The head of a springbok on the wall adds much fun and scenes of poignancy as each reacts to it in their own way. There are wonderful breathtaking moments of clever business too numerous to mention. I haven’t enjoyed a play so much in a long while.

The programme carries the note that the production is “dedicated in loving memory of Brett Goldin, fellow artist and formidable clown.” He would be justly proud.

There are three more performances: July 4 at 14h00 and 19h00 and July 5 at 11h00. Don’t miss it! – Caroline Smart




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