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

CELLO TO CHECKERS PACKET (article first published : 2001-07-6)

The audience is intrigued right from the start. On the square of carpet is a daunting mass of cables and, placed reverently at the front of the stage, are two instruments. A cello and a violin. An accordion is set further back. The only incongruous note is a toilet, set centre stage.

This is what greets audiences at Cello to Checkers Packet, currently running on the fringe of the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. It features the astonishing talents of actor/mime artist Ellis Pearson and musical genius Brendan Jury. This is Ellis Pearson in a hitherto unseen role. Brendan Jury’s capacity as a violinist is well known but not many people know that Ellis can play the cello. So, if you’re expecting Ellis to perform the kind of material he does with Bheki Mkwane, then you will be disappointed but hopefully pleasantly surprised at the new direction his work is taking.

Scenario: In silence, Ellis sits on toilet. Okay, fairly predictable. Now what? He attaches a microphone to his nose and does nothing but breathe. Controlled breathing of the kind one learns in drama school and, more universally, what pregnant women should observe fastidiously – both before and after the baby is born … and even more so when it turns into a person and creates bigger problems.

But that aside. What results from this strange sight is almost a percussion concerto as he breathes in and out with ever increasing rapidity and strength. Next, the pair pick up their instruments in a slow ritual dance-like movement, then let the bows drift slowly and lovingly across the strings.

Their sounds turn into a chant-like mystic song which one could imagine drifting down from the Himalayan mountains to the plains below.

The two performers may not speak much but the instruments and voices do, in this fascinating and excitingly innovative production that is part mime, part music and part sound effects. The microphones are cunningly hidden and come in handy for Brendan to be heard when Ellis is bellowing up the S-bend of the toilet framework!

Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that the show also includes polystyrene cups, a paraffin stove, popcorn and a saucepan - the simplest of items which can be turned into a percussive extravaganza in the skilful hands of these performers.

The whole effect is one of a very clever musical oddity, presented with dignified, cool and calm - but slightly madcap - sophistication. – Caroline Smart




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