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

NAF, GRAHAMSTOWN, JULY 3 (article first published : 2008-07-5; last edited : [an error occurred while processing this directive])

Another sunny day, which meant good news for the many open-air craft stalls and street vendors.

Directed by Mncedisi Shabangu, the Market Theatre’sTen Bush is a dramatic and intensely visual tale of witchcraft and intrigue where witches are set on fire and men can vomit up snakes and stones. Ten Bush is an isolated ancient settlement steeped in ancestral beliefs and internal power struggles situated close to Nelspruit and referred to as Tenbosch but known as “Ten Bush” by those who live there. To gather material for the storyline, Mncedisi and co-writer Craig Higginson met with chiefs and indunas as well as old women and men of the area and gleaned much of the history and culture of these Swazi communities.

The resultant production is riveting, with every nuance of expression clearly portrayed. Ten Bush relies heavily on props and these are skilfully utilised on Nduka Mntamo’s simple and movable set design which is effectively lit by Wesley France. It’s very much an ensemble piece and the actions of the actors are mirrored by sound effects from those who aren’t in the scene at the time – often with an interesting twist. A woman washes clothes, the others wash their faces. The horror of murderous actions are reflected by softer imagery, leaving the audience to imagine the full process.

There are beautiful performances all round. Sello Sebotsane is imposing as the philandering Simon and Hamilton Dlhamini switches comfortably from playing the laconic deposed chief’s advisor to a velvet-voiced manipulative spirit. As Martha, Simon’s wife, Tina Mnumzana particularly impressed as an embittered barren woman whose thoughts have turned to evil. It could easily have become stereotypical but her handling of the character made us both fear her and sympathise with her.

Zandile Msutwana is dignified and composed as Martha’s sister who Martha blinds when she discovers she is pregnant as a result of her relationship with Simon. The eventual child is Duduzile played with delightful sincerity and forthright humour by Lebogang Modiba. Xolile Gama is the young suitor, initially full of fervour for Duduzile, then proud and regal when he becomes chief. In an interview with Leila Hall in Cue, Mncedisi Shabangu stated that he wanted the piece to be as “organic as possible”, smooth flowing without any “theatricalities”. He certainly achieved this aim.

Mike Broderick is Durban’s main lighting man – by that, I mean he has walked off with the Durban Theatre Awards lighting design award every year since its inception – and deservedly so. His commitment to his work is evident in his results, be they for a one-person production in a small theatre or for a full-on music extravaganza in the Playhouse Opera.

Some years back, Mike started work on a lecture demonstration to tour to schools, in which the requirements and necessity for proper lighting design would be explained. However, this became too technical and so the “lecdem” morphed into a short story which Clare Mortimer – another multi-award winner – adapted. Mike, Clare and performer Bryan Hiles developed this into what is now Jakob. Obviously, Jakob is about light – and therefore, also about darkness. It’s a skilfully constructed piece on a clever set with a clear storyline, much humour, a good element of emotion and some wonderful gizmos to produce magical lighting effects.

A fine actor with a capacity to “stay real”, Bryan Hiles takes us companionably through the endearing story of Jakob who was rescued from being drowned in a bucket as a baby. He is a strange soul whose skin glows in the dark and the community fears him. Unwanted at birth, he still only feels he is “something” when he’s in the dark. So he wages war on light, keeping it out of the house and trying to capture it when it breaks through. He sees the light contained in the dam nearby – well, “it’s not so much a dam as an ambitious pond,” quips Bryan – and steals it away in buckets. This is a delightful hour’s entertainment of a fresh and innovative nature.

Jaco Bouwer, this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist for Drama introduces # Untitled which he designed and directed. A quiet unassuming figure, he comes on stage and reads lines that are repeated later in the play. He is to return to the stage several times as he moves chairs or carries microphones – the director still very much in evidence in this theatre process.

Coming out of Jakob, I met up with Aldo Brincat who is in Grahamstown with his production My Father’s Hat, My Mother’s Shoes and former Durban actor Ashley Dowd who’s here to enjoy what’s on. Leaving Aldo to set up for his show, which followed Jacob, Ashley and I wandered out towards Hill Street to be greeted by the magnificent sound of church bells coming from the cathedral. Church bells are one of my favourite sounds – as well as the crunch of tyres on gravel! – and Ashley remarked that it reminded him of the production of Sound of Music we appeared in together, too many years back to mention!

The curtain rises and we can see right to the back of the theatre which now offers at least three times the amount of working space normally afforded the actors in a play with a set. In the distance is a stage. The curtains are drawn. We are therefore not watching the performance area but perhaps the hall itself, the foyer or even ourselves as audience members. The sound of static fills the theatre but nothing else. Static is what you hear when a radio or television programme goes off the air, in other words – when communication ceases. And # Untitled has a lot to do with communication, or rather the lack of it. The silences speak volumes.

A good ten minutes of the early part of the play is in silence – the audience stares at the actors, or rather at the actors’ backs before they turn round and stare at the audience. This sense of quiet is disturbed by the odd restless movement. People are living here – but they’re locked into their own insularity – is what the message seems to convey.

A young woman moves her chair closer to the front of the stage and all we see is her initially tentative, then frantic, silent screams as she confronts something that represents a horror within. A short while later, she’s all smiles – she’s cool, she’s dealt with it! A phrase is sung: ”sy het ‘n kans” which repeated at speed turns into “I can’t say it” and this was uttered continually throughout the play.

Written by Stacy Hardy and Saartjie Botha with music by Braam du Toit, # Untitled can be interpreted on a number of levels – dealing with fear, the inability to articulate and lack of self-worth are some of them. Ina Wichterich’s choreography is frenetic. Like life, # Untitled is not an easy road to travel. It deals with fractured speech in different languages which halts, changes directions and becomes meaningless. Occasionally, a seamless run of words becomes a narrative.

This can’t have been an easy piece to learn and my congratulations go to the excellent cast: Neels Coetzee, Chuma Sopotela, Eben Genis, Ntobeko Rwanqa, Albert Pretorius, Anneke Weidemann and Stacy Hardy.




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