The end is nigh!

Posted: July 20, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
Tags: , ,

Pic by Giovanni Sterelli - Director: Jaci de Villiers
Writers: Graham Weir and Megan Choritz
Review: Astrid Stark

First published in Sunday Independent 19 July.

Imagine the Cape’s thriving Winelands slowly turning into a wasteland. Imagine all the trees have been chopped down for firewood, and the only remaining vegetation is a patch of fynbos on the side of Table Mountain, which only the Government has access to. Imagine all municipalities are bankrupt, shop shelves are barren, and there’s a waiting list for everything. The citizens are warring over water because authorities have sold our rivers to the Chinese; and the French refuse to sell us the parts needed for our broken desalinator. Fuel shortages and cable theft has left the city’s police force obsolete. Imagine the population slowly dying from cell sickness which is brought on by chronic use of cellphones.

This is the chilling premise for the a capella musical, Noah of Cape Town, with its 16-strong cast. Set two hundred years into the future, the musical is a reflection of the state of our planet in the year 2020, when global warming is causing crippling droughts, floods, disease, corruption and extreme poverty.
The performance opens as Noah, played by Francesco Nassimbeni, receives a message from a higher being, played by Christine Weir. He is instructed to gather a following and build an ark as a big flood is imminent. The timing for this musical is on the mark. As the scientific evidence heaps up, we are slowly moving from regarding global warming as the latest catch phrase, to realising that it’s a permanent and progressive condition which, if left untreated, may destroy life as we know it on our planet.

Pic by: Giovanni Sterelli

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In 2001, Graham Weir told Megan Choritz about his concept for a futuristic story that involves otherworldly beings, a space, and ark. Together they wrote Noah of Cape Town which was first performed as a cantata at the Artscape Theatre. Simon Cooper fell in love with it and become obsessed with seeing the full production. He said to Choritz, “Let’s get this straight. My recurring vision is of standing in the front row with my hands raised in triumph above my head, tears streaming down my face and screaming. It will come to pass.” Cooper, Choritz and Weir then formed a company called Uncomfortable Productions which has seen to the full scale production of Noah of Cape Town.

Everything about Noah of Cape Town is big. The powerful voices of the cast rise up and induce ripples of gooseflesh. Graham Weir has written the lyrics, and celebrated musician and songwriter, Amanda Tiffen, is the musical director. The harmonies are fresh and hauntingly beautiful with traces of Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s genius. Noah of Cape Town could do for the environment what the musical Hair, did for personal freedom. The similarities between Noah and Hair are striking. Both musicals advocate moving away from oppressive and inefficient governments and structures. A new community is born from a shared vision of a new and better world. Whilst Noah’s storyline and lyrics are progressive, it lacks somewhat in the drama and extreme polar opposites of ecstasy and agony, which made the Hair musical a legend of its time. We are witness to only one death during Noah’s conception and creation of the Ark. If we are to believe the musical’s premise of complete destruction of our planet as we know it, there perhaps needs to be a brief venture into the really dark side of the unfolding story. Families that are ripped apart by different beliefs and the mourning of an entire population wiped from the planet makes for moving drama and will contrast with the humour and euphoric elements of the story. Whilst it is important to steer away from flat stereotypical conceptions, I missed a subtle rhythm of the African drum and the heartbeat of Mother Earth in the composition of the music.

The set design is a character of its own. All the stage action takes place on an enormous metal hexagon that is steeply raked and made up of removable and interchangeable triangles. Each triangle is set on wheels and during the performance the cast moves the enormous pieces around to change its appearance to alternate between a space ship, a bar, boats, the Karoo landscape, and finally the ark – which has a spine made out of whale bones. The ease and skill of the cast’s construction and deconstruction of the metal monster had us mesmerised. Mannie Manim’s lighting is not overly dramatic and very effective.
It is difficult to highlight specific performances from such a large and talented cast. Christine Weir’s powerful voice and Eben Genis’ voice and emphatic portrayal as Sol; Noah’s friend and keeper, are worth mentioning.
Gys de Villiers has a strong stage presence but his role as the Kommandant feels a little underexploited. The two female news readers’ quirky report from their cell phones is a humorous and interesting touch. However it is when the cast’s voices rise up in unison that the magic really happens.

One can’t help but feel admiration for the creative team and cast that pulled off this “Magnum opus” as Megan Choritz calls it. Whilst the rest of the world unravels under the pressure of the recession, this team decides to stage a full scale a capella musical with a message on global warming. During the final rehearsals co-producer Simon Cooper was silently sobbing out of pure delight. Choritz was juggling her energy and time between worrying about Theatresports at the Grahamstown Arts Festival and her Noah family. Graham Weir and Amanda Tiffen were frantically composing and arranging the songs whilst the cast prepared their voices and lines for this nearly two hour long production.

Watching Noah unfold on stage, one can’t help but feel that you are in the presence of something very special that is in creation. Some tighter editing and a slight reworking of the storyline may just turn this highly enjoyable musical into a uniquely South African local and global runaway success story.
Noah of Cape Town is now on at the Baxter Theatre until 1 August 2009, after which it will go on a national tour that will include theatres, festival, schools and community venues.

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