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

AUSTRALIA VS SOUTH AFRICA (article first published : 2008-07-5)

Eight years ago, well-known duo Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane were performing their show Squawk at festivals in Monterey and San Diego in the US. By some fortuitous chance an Australian duo, Tom Lycos and Stefo Nantsou of Zeal Theatre were performing their production Stones at the same festivals.

The two sets of actors met, saw each other’s work and discovered a synergy between them. However, they were only to meet again four years later, this time at a festival in Calgary. Ideas were thrown around about working together but nothing came of it. It was only in 2006, when Tom and Stefo were commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company to write a new play that their “wild idea”, as they called it, started to take off.

The play’s concept outline dealt with nationalism, sport, media panic and racism. The resulting production Australia vs South Africa premiered at the Wharf 2 Theatre in Sydney last year in July. The production featured on this year’s main programme of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

As one entered the theatre, it was a very different Ellis and Bheki that greeted us – well, hardly greeted, they were going as seriously heavy security guards whose steely glare encompassed the whole audience daring to misbehave at this major match between Australia and South Africa.

What follows is the usual Pearson-Mkhwane mayhem but this time with a lot more muscle and dramatic content as the four actors pool their resources in what is a highly amusing production. Particularly delightful were two interchanging taxi rides – one carrying the South Africans away from the stadium from which they’d been evicted after Bheki’s character had “hijacked” the Australian emblem – and the other carrying the Australians as they raced to get to the stadium before the match starts.

I particularly liked the way the actors handled the various news commentaries as well as producing all the other sound effects with their own voices. There was a moment of horrified disbelief as Ellis’s fans watched their icon (as an embittered former South African now living in Australia) launch forth into hate speech, until they reminded themselves that he was acting!

Referring to Margaret von Klemperer’s review in Cue, the front page headline reads: “A cheery swipe at racism”. Australia vs South Africa certainly didn’t hold back on reminding us that racism is rife elsewhere as well as the fact that there’s always someone wanting to make a lot of money out of sport and any other kind of news associated with it! – Caroline Smart




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