Life, etc

Eat their Shorts: young playwrights show critics who’s boss

By Lesley Stones 6 August 2012

It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying theatre is dead in South Africa, or to assume that even where there are valiant efforts to keep it alive, inexperienced playwrights won’t be quite worth the ticket price. But SA Shorts – a University of Johannesburg initiative to showcase up-and-coming talent – ought to silence the country’s nay-sayers, writes LESLEY STONES.

Two things will become very clear if you go to see SA Shorts, an evening of new plays written and performed by youngsters. 

Firstly, it confirms that theatre isn’t even ailing, let alone dying out; secondly, it’s a reminder that a dispassionate director must always take a show in hand and cut through any over-indulgence by the author. 

So that’s the good news and the bad, in a nutshell. More entertainingly, however, SA Shorts is also a great reminder that student theatre can be hugely fun.

The production is being staged by the University of Johannesburg’s Arts & Culture department as a laboratory for new voices and fresh ideas. Or, as the head of Arts & Culture, Ashraf Johaardien, puts it, as a platform for new, emerging or established playwrights to show fresh material without the pressure of commercial constraints or the box-office bottom line.

Photo: Candi Brown and Lonwabo Ganelo in Kill Me, Please!

UJ’s call for unpublished material received 35 scripts, which director Alby Michaels whittled down to six. The plays then went through further development to hone their content and presentation before being unleashed to a paying audience.

So is it worth a look? Well, it’s probably worth going just to see Kill Me, Please!, a quirky quickie that exploits our macabre fascination with killers. Playwright Rhea MacCallum is Californian, so this fascination is a worldwide phenomenon, yet it fits beautifully into South African culture where we pore over gruesome details with unseemly interest.

Candy Brown is excellent as the willing victim, with a new hairdo and smart clothes, so she’ll look good when the Mail & Guardian splashes her photos as the latest victim of the serial killer. Brown and Lonwabo Ganelo as the Slasher are the stars of the evening, partly because they get all the best lines and partly because they’re both so believable. It’s funny and ridiculous, and a real little gem.

The other shorts vary in style, content and quality. Some were two-handers, one had a cast of 13, other were big on special effects but the scripts failed to reach any point or conclusion.

Photo: Glen Izaacs in Losing The Plot.

Some playwrights stuck loyally to the old advice to write about what you know, with Losing the Plot by Anthony Akerman featuring three characters trying to hatch a storyline for a play. “It’s all been done before, it’s just the spin you put on it,” one of his characters says. That’s undeniably true.

Feminist playwright Rob K Baum gave her play The Opening the unusual spin of actors dressed in black with only luminous stick figure outlines visible. Thankfully, the content firmed up to give it substance that complemented the gimmick.

Special effects also featured in Dance the Dance by Tristan Jacobs, but a lack of purpose left the play feeling as insubstantial as its main character, a spirit.

Photo: Metaphorically Speaking, with Reginald Hufkiwe and Nico Horn.

Wave was the most meandering play of all, and twice as long as it should have been. Writer Renos Spanoudes begins in light-hearted mode with a warning that to some, this play may appear meaningless and a whole lot of crap. Well, not a whole lot of crap, but certainly a fair amount.

“I’m not sure I’m on the right medication to understand this,” my partner whispered as a cast of clowns tumbled and wailed around.

Then, abruptly, the play switched mood two or three times to touch on the raw topics of the Far East tsunami and, much closer to home, the stampede for admissions to UJ in January that left the mother of one student dead. It’s raw stuff to address in a play at UJ, and was done with taste and sympathy. But too much tomfoolery and repetition diluted the impact, and highlighted the need for strong direction to pare it down and prevent author ego getting in the way of a good story.

Metaphorically Speaking by Zanandi Botes left me thinking I’d stumbled into an offshoot of Waiting for Godot, as two characters struck up a random conversation about life, and the meaning of.

Reginald Hufkie was particularly lively as the man with a broken zip, injecting a lovely level of flippancy and zing into the philosophical debate. As he told Nico Horn, the man with a bucket stuck on his foot, you can’t be helped unless you want to be helped.

Some of these playwrights and actors need help, some just need more exposure, and it was rewarding to see such experimental work and promising young actors given chance to make their voices heard. DM

  • Review courtesy of SA Shorts runs at the UJ Arts Centre Theatre, Kingsway Campus until August 11. 

Main photo: Send in the clowns – the cast of Wave by Renos Spanoudes, one of six plays showing in SA Shorts.

All photos by Jan Potgieter


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