Posts Tagged ‘theatre review’

Director: Paul Griffiths

Starring:  Lilian Khumalo, Stella Magaba and Dorothy Engelbrecht with Take Note. Special guest: Dantanio Goodman.

Review:  Astrid Stark

 First published in The Cape Times, 15 September ‘09 

Dust the mirror ball and freshen up your afro. Disco’s back – again.

She’s poured into a black velvet cat suit which is laced with twinkling sequinned stars and which appears to be a size too small for her. Perhaps she’s a size too big. Either way it doesn’t matter; she is voluptuously sexy as she bats her ridiculously long and glittery eyelashes at the audience.  The girls of the Original Tons are camping it up in the musical tribute, Disco Nights, currently running at the NewSpace Theatre in Long Street.

Everything about Paul Griffiths’ direction for this show is big, bouncy and generously filled with riotous colours and textures. The three voluptuous disco divas; Stella, Dorothy and Lilian; are dressed in lace, velvet, satin and feathers. On their generous faces they wear layers of pastel make-up dressed up with lots of glitter. Enormous eyelashes sit like bejewelled butterflies high on their foreheads.  They look a bit like refurbished hippie hookers in drag.  Yet, somehow, a whole lot of over the top girl never looked this good.   It’s very entertaining simply watching the girls shaking their booty and playing out their big-girls-are-better act, but they also have formidable voices.

Dorothy, Stella and Lilian in Disco Nights

Dorothy, Stella and Lilian in Disco Nights

During the evening’s performance the trio belt out songs made famous by Gloria Gaynor, Donna Summer, Diana Ross, Aretha Franklin, the Pointer Sisters and other popular disco era singers.  You may expect foot-stomping favourites such as I will survive, We are family, Respect, Jump, and Ain’t no mountain high enough.  The girls do a bitchy rendition of Evil Woman which is at once funny and scary as they snap at snarl at each other.  

Their performance of Miriam Makeba’s Pata Pata and Strike Vilakazi’s Meadowlands is very touching and a favourite with the audience. It makes me wonder what a tribute to South African 70’s ‘disco’ musicians would sound, and look, like.

Dorothy and Stella both started their careers in choirs and Lilian first trained as a cordon bleu chef before finding her true vocation.  Between the three of them they have won multiple awards and have featured in radio, television and stage productions. The trio who started out at On Broadway joined Madame Zingara’s Theatre of Dreams for two years and performed with them both locally and abroad. 

Take Note, a live band from Cape Town accompanies the trio and this sextet of young men seems to derive a lot of joy from watching the girls grinding and gyrating on the dancefloor.  The charismatic band has performed internationally and they are a good accompaniment to the strong female voices. 

And then Michael Jackson enters the stage, or rather Dantanio Goodman, performing a medley of Jackson’s songs.   Goodman has the longest rubberlike legs that do a legendary moonwalk to the hysterically screaming of girls in the audience.  Not that he looks anything like the pop legend, and not that it makes much of a difference. His voice is uncannily similar and his mannerisms are spot on.

One complaint is that at times the sound seemed a bit unbalanced.  When the girls growled and bantered with the audience, their voices were often drowned out by the music, and it was hard to follow what they were saying.  Since it was opening night, one should expect this technicality to be smoothed out in time.   Before you go, it’s also wise to bear in mind that the music is loud, fast and relentless. If you’re a fan of disco; you’re in for a treat. If you are a bit of a square and you have been dragged out by your platform shoe wielding friend or partner, you may find it all a bit too loud and camp.  However, if you can free your mind a little, you may well find that your booty will soon follow, and you might just end up boogying with the rest of the audience under the mirror ball. 

The NewSpace Theatre has come a long way since opening last year in November.  The bare-bones décor has been replaced by decadent and dramatic touches.  These days Boo Radley, Anytime Trattoria and The Quarter restaurants are busy and cosy which makes the theatre complex a gorgeous one-stop venue for those who love wine, woman song and all things artsy.

Disco Nights runs until 26 September

Comedy with heart

Posted: September 15, 2009 in Uncategorized
Marks Sampson feels funny

Marks Sampson feels funny

Performance:  Mark Sampson feels funny

Review:  Astrid Stark 

First published in Cape Times, 14 September ’09

It was Charlie Chaplin who said, “To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it”.   When comedian Mark Sampson’s father suffered from another stroke, his mum called him to England and said, ‘this is the one’.  Sampson held the dying man’s hand and he was the one who closed his father’s eyes for the last time.  The comedian then went on to have a comprehensive breakdown complete with bouts of mania and fistfuls of anti-depressants.

All this, and a lot more, Sampson shares with his audience during his show, Mark Sampson feels funny.  Sampson explains that his father’s passing was cathartic and that it was, and still is, the inspiration for his show.  Finding humour in tragedy is a form a therapy and that life is not necessarily about winning the game, but how you play it, are the messages Sampson imparts on his audience.  She show is a mixed bag of comedy, drama and motivational interactive theatre.    Sampson uses a giant snakes and ladders board to illustrate the game of life. He then he kicks a metre-wide inflated dice into the audience which determines the course of the evening’s events.  On the evening we had a few late-comers who were punished by having to do a bit of pole dancing, the front row of the audience performed a fabulous river dance, and there were some unconventional kissing and spanking thrown in for kicks.

The extremes between comedy and tragedy can create powerful emotions, and for the most part, Sampson has his audience captivated as he shares very intimate experiences and invites the audience to contribute their life stories.  He is a bit of a dreadlocked Peter Pan meets Eminem, skateboarding, surfing, whale whispering raconteur. He calls himself a white ‘bergie’.  At the bottom of it all he’s an engaging story teller whose sincerity will win over most hearts.  He seems to have accumulated himself quite a loyal posse over the last few years; his last show, Missing Links, sold out twice in Cape Town.

The performance relies heavily on audience participation and whilst the crowd on the evening were responsive, it did feel a little as if the show did not quite reach the climax that it could, sagging a little in places.  Some felt that the sharing of the personal highs and lows went on a bit too long for comedy; with too little laughter. I quite enjoyed the intimacy and oddity of sharing your most private painful experiences with a hundred strangers.

Sampson’s strength lies in taking a suggestion, or a story, and running crazily and very funnily with it until his next brain wave comes along. If the audience’s suggestions are lacking or a bit dull then he has to improvise like crazy, which he does greatly for the most part. There are a few stale jokes than can get the boot.  His observations about the often incongruous South African culture and lifestyle, which we sometimes overlook, are hilarious and very sharp.  Sampson urges his audience to embrace all the craziness that comes with living in a developing country. His take is that developed countries as controlled and boring and that few opportunities remain for entrepreneurs. It’s all about turning those snakes into ladders.   

Originally from Cornwall, England, Sampson came to South Africa on a surfing holiday.   He decided to stay and founded the Cape Comedy Collective and coined the phrase, ‘comedy for the people, by the people’. He was also the convener of the Comedy Lab that has produced some of our finest comedians such as Kurt Schoonraad, Riaad Moosa, Stuart Taylor, and Nik Rabinowitz.  Runs until 19 September.

Tickets are R100 per person.  Book through the theatre’s box office on 021 438-3300, or

through Computicket’s call centre on 083 915 8000 (

The End

Review:  A Midsummer Night’s Raiders.
Written by:  Nicholas Ellenbogen, with Andrew Brent and Luke Ellenbogen
Directed by:  Andrew Brent
Cast: Nicholas and Luke Ellenbogen, and members of the audience.
Review:  Astrid Stark
First published in the Sunday Independent:  30 August 09

 Shakespeare:  the missing ink. 

You will have to buckle-up for the latest fast paced comical romp that is A Midsummer Night’s Raiders.  Father and son team, Nicholas and Luke Ellenbogen, are back with the 20th production from the renowned Raiders series and the production is as slick and as hilarious as ever.  

Luke and Nicholas Ellenbogen as William Shakespeare and the lusty Queen in A Midsummer Night's Raiders pic  by Andrew Brown - Copy

Luke and Nicholas Ellenbogen as William Shakespeare and the lusty Queen in A Midsummer Night's Raiders pic by Andrew Brown - Copy

 A Midsummer Night’s Raiders tells the story of the secret life of William Shakespeare as revealed by a stash of letters, which were found by a Doctor Hargrove, Professor of Medieval Orthography at the University of the Witwatersrand.   The letters reveal that Shakespeare had lived for far longer than previously thought, and that the jealous and tyrannical ‘Virgin’ Queen Elizabeth I of England, lusted after him.  During the play she concocts a plan to get the Bard into her royal bed by commissioning him to write the first play in English history to have a female lead.  She suggests that the young writer, ‘dip his quill into the royal ink’. To Shakespeare’s absolute horror; the lascivious Queen insists on playing the role of Queen Lear herself.  Worse still, he is suffering from writer’s block and decides to stage his own death to escape persecution; and so the mad romp unfolds.

 Veteran actor and director, Nicholas Ellenbogen, plays the role of the Queen with lusty glee.  His experience as accomplished actor and his impeccable comic timing has the audience spellbound right from the start.  Nicholas utterly immerses himself into his performance and is such a joy to watch.  

His son, Luke, is a winner of two Fleur du Cap Awards, and he has recently directed Oscar Wilde’s, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Harold Pinter’s, The Dumb Waiter, at Grahamstown National Arts Festival this year.  Luke, instead of simply holding his own against his experienced father, works harmoniously together with him, which makes the performance run like a well-oiled machine.   They expertly bounce their performances off one another and, unless they are supernaturally talented actors, they give the impression of thoroughly enjoying themselves on stage.  

The third member of the cast is the audience.  The father and son team create an entire cast by handing out roles to unsuspecting audience members who are called up to play the various roles.   And this is where the giggles that have turned to laughter, reach uncontrollable, snorting proportions.  Both the Queen and the Bard have body doubles that must play the roles they themselves find unpalatable.  The guy who was picked as the Queen’s double has to do a raunchy bedroom scene with Shakespeare’s body double, and if the scene is not steamy enough for the brothers Ellenbogen, the body doubles are harshly instructed to put in more effort. Imagine doing a simulated sex scene with a complete stranger in front of a theatre full of people.  Yet, each audience member puts fantastic effort into their roles; no matter how humiliating.  Spot the Dog was cast out of the audience, and the entire poor guy got to do on stage, was to lie behind a couch and be flatulent – which he did with great gusto.    

Director, Andrew Brent, who was schooled at the Barbican Arts Centre in London, acted in some of the earlier Raiders’ productions. He moved on to direct the series of farcical plays from 2004 onwards. He brings to the production his skill and experience that adds to the magic. 

A Midsummer Night’s was the highest grossing show at the recent Arts Festival in Grahamstown.  A large portion of its success must be attributed to the clever writing by Nicholas, assisted by Luke, and Andrew Brent. The dialogue is fast-paced – punctuated by frivolous puns – and wonderfully light and uncomplicated.  Shakespeare is in hiding and his companion is disguised as a mole, of the facial kind – literally.  The young bard walks into the pub announcing, “I came in as Ariel; but I did not get a very good reception. Perhaps I should change the channel.” His companion turns to the audience and drily replies, “They get the picture.”

The costumes, props and stunts are numerous and very clever.   The two Ellenbogens are squashed on top of a little purple boat, Nicholas is using leaf blower to create wind to propel them forward.  In one scene, the Queen – played by an audience member – is heavily pregnant; her water breaks; spraying the hysterical audience.  Daniel Galloway’s clever writing enhances the use of the many different props and adds a light, airy feeling to the stage. 

Raiders pic 3 Nicholas and Luke Ellenbogen set sail in A Midsummer Night's Raiders pic by Zukiswa Zimela

Raiders pic 3 Nicholas and Luke Ellenbogen set sail in A Midsummer Night's Raiders pic by Zukiswa Zimela

The play should be accessible to most people; unless you don’t like your Shakespeare to be turned into a farcical folly. It’s very physical and it’s side-splittingly funny.  It is a great way to laugh out the last of the winter chills in the snug comfort of the theatre. 

The play is on at the Baxter Theatre until 5 September. 


First Published in The Cape Times: Wednesday 19 August

Directed by:  Alan Swerdlow

Designed by:  Alan Swerdlow and Jannie Swanepoel

Starring:  Graham Hopkins; Theo Landey, Robert Fridjohn and Malan Le Roux.

Adapted by Giles Havergal

Review by:  Astrid Stark


Old-fashioned farcical romp for a mature audience.

Spending a night out on the town with secret agents, Nazis, South American drug lords, art smugglers, and even a salivating Irish wolfhound, is one way to beat the relentless recession blues.  Graham Greene’s wrote Travels with my aunt in 1969 and he described it as, ‘the one book I wrote just for the fun of it’. Giles Havergal adapted it for the stage and it is his version, under the direction of Alan Swerdlow, which is currently on show at The Theatre on the Bay.  It tells the tale of Henry Pulling, a naive, retired bank manager whose only hobby is tending his dahlias; until he meets his eccentric, capricious aunt Agatha at his mother’s funeral. Aunt Agatha instantly decides to save Henry from his dull as dishwater existence.  Their madcap adventure takes them across three continents in hot pursuit of the shady Mr Visconti, whom Aunt Agatha has lusted after all her life.  Along their journey they are mostly on the wrong side of the law and they find themselves mingling with a rather unsavoury menagerie of characters. 

Four of finest actors do their best to act out the more than twenty characters in this farcical travel adventure. Graham Hopkins, Theo Landey and Robert Fridjohn have reunited again after performing together in the very funny, satirical play, Pythonesque.  Malan Le Roux, of High School Musical, is new to their ensemble. They all play a variety of roles which include pot smoking hippies, CIA agents, waiters and thugs. For the better part of the play the four actors are dressed in suits regardless of which characters they are enacting. The play is fast and the character changes relentless.  At times it all gets a little confusing. If you’re a fan of Graham Green’s humour – and if you have read the book – you will be able to follow the plot and characters with greater ease.

Veteran actor Graham Hopkins plays the role of the wacky Aunt Agatha with much relish. However his portrayal of her comes across as a slightly camp caricature, which may be intentional, but the shrill voice which Hopkins uses for her starts to grind the nerves after some time.  Agatha as a character is zany and highly unorthodox which is refreshing in these politically correct times. She is constantly in the hot water with the police and in her defence she exclaims, “I have never planned anything illegal in my life.  How could I plan anything of the kind when I have never read any of the laws and have no idea what they are?”

Theo Landey is an ace with accents and his portrayal of an African called Wordsworth instantly transforms him without the need for make-up or a change of clothing.  Landey also give a chilling impersonation of a mafia boss that would’ve made Marlon Brando proud.   At times the various support roles of Landey, Le Roux and Fridjohn stole the limelight from the seductively psychotic Aunt Agatha. 

Alan Swerdlow and Jannie Swanepoel’s stage and set design is ingenious and good fun.  Two enormous wooden pillars in the centre of the stage serve as cupboards from which all sorts of travel paraphernalia are plucked. From the pillars the actors also open and close doorways and frames to depict the various exotic destinations they travel through. The lighting greatly enhances the stage design and together with the sound effects creates wonderfully evocative moods for places such as Istanbul, Paris and South America.

Despite the actors’ best intentions, the play does come across as dated and the old-fashioned humour sometimes turns a smile but seldom a guffaw.  Travels will appeal to a mature, sophisticated crowd that enjoys the likes of The 39 Steps. It is a good play to take your parents or aunt to and even an uncle in drag will fit perfectly into the evening’s bizarre entertainment.

Showing at The Theatre On The Bay until 29 August. Tickets vary from R90 to R125 and are available through the theatre’s box office or at any Computicket outlet.

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

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.

Only one night left to catch Brent Palmer’s stand-up comedy show, Credit Crunch, before he leaves for the Grahamstown arts festival.  Palmer who studied acting in London in the 90’s has directed Nik Rabinowitz’s one man show, has written four produced shows, acted in Shakespeare at Maynardville and has the dubious honour of having been shot by Steven Segal.    

Stand-up is not for sissies.  You need gallons of testosterone, a super sized ego that feeds off the audience, and you need to be able to think on your feet – drop the stuff that’s not working and slap in something that does – quickly before you die on stage!  Palmer’s improv is very good.  He gently and persistently hustles guffaws out of the audience by picking on certain members.  It works for him. Some of his sketches are quite funny; such as the persistent and at times philosophical ‘bergie’ that tries to sell a stolen cellphone to someone on Sea Point beach. His accent is spot on and very funny. 

The sketch about a sly middle manager is fresh and interesting but it drags on too long with too few laughs to keep me interested.  At the end, the hour long show felt a little too long, which is an indication that it needs to be more tightly edited; just like an overlong book that can benefit with a bit of chopping and changing.   Noticable is a slight lack of consistency; an invisible thread that pulls it all together neatly as a package. 


It is his first stand-up and I get the sense that he still has to find and polish his unique voice. With a little perseverance; soul searching, and direction; he should be able achieve this.   The leading stand-ups such as Marc Lottering, Nik Rabinowitz and Riaad Moosa have set high standards, and as with any other competitive industry; when the talent pools widens you need to up your game and find your unique angle.

Credit Crunch runs until 27 June at the Obz Cafe Theatre in Observatory.


If you, like me, suffer from a paranoid, palm-sweating fear of being called up on stage during a live performance, don’t sit in the front row of Conrad Koch’s one-man- many- puppets show at On Broadway.  It is far less strenuous laughing at other people being publicly ripped to shreds by a professional showman; unless you have a masochistic nature.   Koch who has just completed his honours in Anthropology uses the stage for a bit of philosophising and a lot of comedy.

It is peculiar that once you stick your hand up the behind of a puppet you can just about get away with murder. We are so much more forgiving of a ventriloquist unleashing a string of obscenities and politically incorrect comments from the mouth of a green monster called Ronnie who has a sex addiction.  This is precisely what Koch uses to great effect. His puppets were made by Yanni Younge and the guys from CFX.  Koch has come a long way since his first puppet, Cedric the Snake. “I went through puberty with a talking snake,” Koch realises during a conversation.  Hillary the diva puppet is an ostrich that looks like a drag queen.  She has the mind of a sailor and a laugh like a choking steam train. Hillary picks on audience members and asks one of the elderly gents in the audience; “Did you come in your car?”  To which he replies, “No”, and she says, “Would you like to!”, and then that vulgar chortling laughter. The audience loved her.    

Does Koch have any control over his foul-mouthed little friends? “Puppets can comment on society in a way people can’t,” Says Koch. “I have spoken to Hillary about her obscenity, but she told me to f%&# off!”.
We were lucky enough to be introduced to the hottest accessory this winter; the new Julius Malema puppet, created from a sketch by cartoonist Jeremy Nel.  Expect an interesting fusion of Social Anthropology and comedy (or rather woodwork) from this latest addition.

Koch Up! runs at On Broadway until 27 June 2009

©Astrid Stark

The slaughtering of sacred cows and other white elephants.


Bafana Republic 3, Penalty Shootout.

Director:  Mandla Mbothwe

Review:  Astrid Stark

First published in the Sunday Independent, 14 June’09

Lungi Pinda as Miss South Africa 2010 in Bafana Republic 3

Lungi Pinda as Miss South Africa 2010 in Bafana Republic 3


Imagine in this day and age a dog that barks only at black people; especially Zimbabweans.  The distraught owner in an attempt to acclimatise the beast, feeds it Kentucky Fried Chicken bones, and takes it to a dog psychiatrist for evaluation. This is just one of the many controversial characters in playwright, Mike van Graan’s Bafana Republic 3:  Penalty Shootout which has just opened at the Baxter.  

Mike van Graan, who is celebrated for not backing away from contentious issues, has written another cracker of a satirical show in his series of the Bafana Republic shows of which the inaugural performance took place three years ago at the Franschhoek Litfest.  The concept behind the series of one-person shows is the almost pathological frenzy with which we South Africans embraced the announcement of our hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup, our team’s poor performances, and all the other controversies surrounding the planning and organisation of this momentous event. 

Part of van Graan’s end plan is to provide opportunities for young performers and directors, and every year a new director and actor is chosen for his satire.  This year an audience consisting of Mike van Graan’s theatre club members voted for their favourite performers and actor Lungi Pinda was selected.  

Pinda who graduated from UCT Drama Department in 2007 is brilliant as he deftly flicks from one character to another.  He squeals and squirms as the newly crowned Miss South Africa 2010 who is clearly manipulated by the FIFA coordinators, and he does a funny and very chilling impersonation of Julius ‘seize-her’ Malema.  For Pinda, Shakespeare seems to almost bubble effortlessly from within. His performance is very intense and totally captivating.  It is so exciting to see a new talent literally unfolding in front of you eyes, and he is certain to have a brilliant career if this is a taste of what’s to come.

During the evening a number of holy cows are cleverly and happily slaughtered along the way.   In a skit as a fanatical preacher he urges his congregation to open their hearts and wallets for the FIFA World Cup as it is the answer to all their ailments, with sports being proffered as ‘the new opium of the masses’.  As a sport reporter he is commentating on a taxi road race, ‘happening at a main road near you’, and he draws on an incident during which a woman was paraded naked, for wearing a miniskirt, which had the female audience members growling and hissing in disapproval.  

The stage becomes a football pitch of controversy set against a backdrop of Zapiro’s political commentary cartoons which are reflected on a large screen.  We are at a time in our country where issues of censorship are continuously making headlines.  The SABC has again pulled the plug on Zapiro’s satire, Z-news, and the cartoonist, like van Graan, does not back away from scathing satire even though he has a potential multimillion rand lawsuit hanging around his neck.   With the public broadcaster’s apparent self-censorship it will be interesting to see how the role of the internet and the stage will be explored by social and political commentators, artists and performers.

After the first screening of Bafana Republic 3 at the recent Franschhoek Litfest, van Graan urged theatre goers to fill out questionnaires on each skit. The show has since been further developed and it is incredible how, with a little change of direction and shifting around a skit or two, the show is now perfectly polished and highly entertaining.  The show is directed by Mandla Mbothwe who has won numerous awards and is currently a drama lecturer and researcher at the University of Cape Town.

Bafana Republic 1 and 2 won the South African Comedy Award for Best One-Person show in 2007 and 2008.  The third installation runs at the Baxter Theatre until 27 June before moving to the Grahamstown National Arts Festival.  Van Graan’s energy is admirable; he has three performances running simultaneously across the country.    Iago’s Last Dance, which is directed by Lara Bye is premiering at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival as part of the main programme, and Brothers in Blood premiered in May at the Market Theatre and will run there until the first week of July.



Director: Christine Crouse

Review: Astrid Stark


Once upon a time in a far away land there lived a beautiful geisha, who fell in love with a dashing American Lieutenant, with whom she had a son named Sorrow.  Her story takes place in Nagasaki during the early 1900’s, a time when marriage between geishas and Americans were common, but not respected by the Americans.  The geisha called Coi-Coi-San, or Butterfly, gave up her religion and culture and were denounced for this by her own people, only to be abandoned by her one true love. And so the tragedy of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly unfolds. 

Designer Michael Mitchell uses the highly stylised form of Japanese Kabuki throughout his stage and costume design, with some modern twists, to great effect.  As Puccini’s emotional score takes us from drama to drama the changing stage design has the effect of paging through a stylised graphic novel created from Japanese woodprints.  The flat and solid planes in the background contrast severely with the detailed relief cuttings of cherry blossom trees and again with three dimensional characters in complex Kabuki costumes.   The effect is surreal, breathtaking and thoroughly engaging.  Kabuki involves the use of stage managers, dressed in black, that assist the characters in dressing on stage and moving about.    There is a dramatic scene in which the poor Butterfly is denounced by her uncle for abandoning her religion.  As he vents his anger at her, his entire costume grows large and threatening.

In opera there’s seldom room for compromise.  The story of Madama Butterfly is overly simplified and melodramatic; dipping from one extreme emotion to the next, within a kimono clad heartbeat.  Butterfly waits for her beloved Pinkerton, she cries out, “I thought that I was going to die, but it soon passes like clouds over the ocean.” It is precisely this pared down approach to human emotions that makes the melodrama so riveting. It’s a, ‘love me or I shall simply die,’ approach to life, that hits unapologetically straight into the heart of the romantic fool.

In his composition of Madama Butterfly, Puccini unleashes the orchestra’s full emotional and powerful scale onto the helpless audience.  There is a particular scene where Butterfly and her loyal companion Suzuki hear the harbour cannon signalling the arrival of a ship.  Cherry blossoms, rose petals and paper butterflies rain down onto the stage as the two women decorate the house for Pinkerton’s arrival;  creating the most perfect illusion of shaking up a snow globe and looking in on a miniaturised scene.  As the two women sing and dance in high expectation, we weep, as we know the dastardly Pinkerton is betrothed to another, and suicide is Butterfly’s only option.  Butterfly finally commits hara-kiri using a dagger with an inscription that reads, ‘if you cannot live with honour, you must die with honour’.

The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, under direction of conductor Francesc Bonnin, is simply superb.  There was a moment during the very first opening scenes that the voices and music did not carry well, however this appeared to be more of a sound problem, and it was soon rectified. 

The main roles of Butterfly and Pinkerton are performed by Durban born Amanda Echalaz, and Pretoria’s Stéfan Louw respectively.  Again, the opening was slightly unsure, as if they were still testing the waters.  Soon enough their voices rose passionately and powerfully like waves rushing towards the rocks; tragedy inevitable.  Stéfan Louw appears a bit too beefy to be completely believable as the handsome philandering Lieutenant that stole the gorgeous Butterfly’s heart.    Similarly, Amanda Echalaz’s Butterfly lacks that delicate and graceful geisha movement and style that, of course, takes years of dedication to cultivate. Her voice however is superb.   

Phandulwasi Maseti as the marriage broker and Ntobeko Rwanqa as the American consul perform well in their respective roles.  Violina Anguelov and Janelle Visagie alternates as Butterfly’s constant and loving companion, Suzuki.

Director Christine Crouse saw her first opera when she was five.  It was Madama Butterfly and it starred her own mother.  Crouse now finally has her opportunity to direct Puccini’s masterpiece and the audience’s standing ovation speaks for itself.

It is an evening of total escapism that will fill up your senses and allow you to dream of a time when love really was all that mattered, and death; a question of honour.   Be sure to wear run-proof make-up and bring your hanky.

Performances run 27, 29 and 31 May, and 3 and 5 June at the Artscape Opera House.

 Photo by Stuart Ralph.

Photo by Stuart Ralph.

  ©Astrid Stark

First published in Business Day, The Weekender, 11 April ’09

Athol Fugard’s first ever sequel has opened at Cape Town’s Baxter theatre and the performances do not disappoint.  

Coming Home picks up the story of Veronica Jonkers as we left her in Valley Song; a young, optimistic dreamer on her way to Cape Town to realise her childhood dreams of becoming a famous singer. However, as soon as the naive small town girl arrives in the big city, she befriends the wrong crowd and her life starts to spiral out of control.

Soon Veronica’s dreams are shattered and she finds herself broken-hearted, single and pregnant.  Worst of all, she carries within her a shameful and deadly secret. 

Veronica decides to change her life.  She returns to her childhood home in Nieu-Bethesda and moves into her oupa’s old home, determined to plant the seeds of a new and beautiful life for her young boy, Mannetjie.  Her son is eager to learn and he displays a natural affinity for words.  However, Mannetjie’s own wounds must first heal, and he must overcome his own prejudices and mistrust. 

Fugard’s beautiful dialogue gently flows and lingers, and with a few carefully placed words he paints the warm textures of the Karoo landscape.   

Saul Radomsky’s surreal set design evokes nostalgia for a time when everything was deliberate and every object had a function.  The old gas stove, oupa’s tin cup, and an old cast iron bed with a saggy bottom speaks of simple uncomplicated world.  The colours used by Radomsky are soft, restrained: salmon pink, aquamarine, sun-bleached purple; all colours of a coral reef, stolen and planted in the heart of the Karoo, adding to the dreamlike quality of the production.



Photo by:  Mark Freeborough

Photo by: Mark Freeborough




Coming home tackles the painful and challenging aspects of living in a modern South Africa, with sensitivity and even a delicate humour;  gently promoting the value of friendship and the wisdom of our elders – without making it feel like a hefty sermon.

Fugard offers hope throughout the difficult themes and Veronica’s story of broken dreams, wasted opportunities and return conjures up long suppressed memories, ghosts, and a dear childhood.   

 Bronwyn van Graan, winner of the 2008 Naledi Award for Best Supporting actress in Shirley, plays Veronica Jonkers’ character with great understanding; drawing feelings of compassion and understanding from the audience with an apparent ease.  The role of her childhood friend, Alfred, is played by David Isaacs, better known for his comical performance in Joe Barber.

For Isaacs, the character of Alfred is a big departure from his usual comical repertoire.   Alfred is a simple, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, with a lifelong crush on Veronica.  Alfred’s painfully naive character borders on being mentally challenged, and at first the audience – used to Joe Barber’s shenanigans – laugh at Isaacs interpretation, until they realise that it is not meant to  humorous.  This has to be challenging for Isaacs to handle, but he does pull it off and soon he is the darling of the performance.  

Terry Hector plays a small but poignant role as the ghost of Veronica’s oupa.    The role of the her young boy, Mannetjie, is played with a natural charm by the 11-year old Devon and Walbrugh.  Cinga Vanda is his understudy and plays only on certain evenings.  There is a beautiful scene where oupa and Mannetjie breach two entire generations with the help of a handful of Mannetjies collection of new words, and oupa’s  pumpkin seeds which lives in a faded tin.

Fugard’s writing may, at first, appear straight to the point, but as the play unfolds and the secrets bubble to the top; worlds collide and characters and the consequences of their actions unfold before our eyes like a complex origami design.

Coming Home is directed by Ross Devenish who has directed three Fugard scripts, also staring Fugard himself.  Devenish says he relishes in his return to the theatre and in being able to be dealing directly with the drama.

The performance premiered recently at the Long Wharf Theatre in New York.  Van Graan and Isaacs sat in on a rehearsal, giving them an opportunity to give advice on their characters.  However it is hard to imagine an all American cast performing Fugard’s South African characters that are drenched in our colourful history and shaped by our unique geography.

Coming Home is showing at The Baxter Theatre until 25 April.

Astrid Stark



©Astrid Stark

First published in The Business Day: The Weekender, 11 September 2009