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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH (article first published : 2008-06-20)

Suitably marking the first day of the ISPA conference taking place at the Playhouse, John Kani’s internationally-acclaimed stage play Nothing But The Truth opened tonight in the Playhouse Drama. I was delighted to see that it had lost none of its edge, humour and riveting entertainment value that I first saw and enjoyed at its premier at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in 2002. The play has now rightfully taken its place in the annals of top South African plays.

Set in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth – close to the sea, as the opening sound effects remind us - this tightly-written play introduces us to 63-year-old librarian Sipho Makhaya. We see him pottering around the living room and kitchen of his home, an effective set designed by Sarah Roberts, as he nervously prepares for the arrival of his niece Mandisa from the UK. She is accompanying the earthly remains of Themba, his deceased brother, who has been living in exile in London and whose wish it was that on his death he be returned to South Africa and placed next to their parents’ graves. While Themba has an exalted reputation as hero of the anti-apartheid movement, we discover that Sipho has a very different view of the man. Their relationship over the years forms the basis of the play.

Sipho’s daughter Thando tries to calm her father before leaving to fetch Mandisa. When they return, Mandisa brings with her a devastating surprise – Themba in the form of ashes, not a body. This throws Sipho into a quandary. How is he going to resolve the fact that he has arranged a full-blown funeral to take place the following day in the proper manner according to traditional customs?

Director Janice Honeyman is known for her flair for comedy and she extracts with subtlety much humour from this insightful work. The audience responds with ease - from gentle smiles at Sipho’s actions and philosophies to loud guffaws at some of the hilarious dialogue. There are some unforgettable moments such as Thando’s effusive thanks to Sipho for permitting her to go away with Mandisa: “I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do” – to which he replies laconically “That’s the trouble with freedom!”

As the central figure, John Kani - endearing with his distinctive emphatic downward finger-pointing - takes us through the moods, hopes and frustrations of Sipho in a mesmeric performance. His final scene cannot fail to touch the hardest heart as he clutches the container of Themba’s ashes firmly to his chest and vows to move forward despite the personal and global injustices of the past.

Former Durban actress Welile Tembe has captured the role of Mandisa firmly in her talented grasp and gives a fine portrayal of this spunky, highly opinionated and outspoken young fashion designer. She arrives, power-dressed to the nines and looking fabulous! Smoking cigarettes and drinking whisky, she finds herself at odds trying to balance traditional customs against her emancipated upbringing.

The role of Thando, Sipho’s dutiful and obedient daughter, could easily become overshadowed by the strength of the characters of Sipho and Mandisa but Motshabi Tyelele makes her presence known with quiet steel and a shining sincerity. She stands up to her father with dignity and strength while burning with the energy of adventure when the possibility of travel outside her small world is offered to her. She has some beautiful poignant moments as the secrets from the past are unravelled.

In my initial review, I noted that we had reached a time when the leading creative forces in the arts had placed apartheid, the struggle, protest theatre and a fledgling democracy in their proper historical context and are producing work that doesn’t need to fly political banners to be strong and relevant. More of the same please, Mr Kani!

Nothing but the Truth has a short run in the Playhouse Drama until June 29 and booking is at Computicket or Playhouse Box Office on 031 369 9540 or 031 369 9596. Don’t miss this one! – Caroline Smart




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