When actor Lionel Newton addressed an empty chair in his show Rats this week, I kept glancing at it to see who had arrived.
It remained stubbornly empty, yet my brain was convinced someone must be sitting there. That’s the power of good acting, when the character makes you believe in his world so completely that you accuse your eyes of deceiving you.
Newton is appearing in Rats for a very short run at Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square. It’s part of Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival, when exploratory shows pop up for a brief appearance.
Rats is not really a full length ‘show’ because it’s a trio of pieces where Newton plays a variety of characters. It lasts the requisite hour-and-a-bit, but feels something like a masterclass in drama.
That’s praise, not criticism, because Newton is absolutely spellbinding.
His face, hands, arms and whole body give expression to each character. A stoop and the raise of an eyebrow make him a slimy mayor. A shuffle and a face that somehow loses all hope in a single downcast glance make him the elderly waiter in a deserted Indian restaurant.
With a supercilious sneer and a slight slurring of his words he’s a disgraceful and now drunk captain of industry, bemoaning that the blacks are snuffling up to the trough. That comes in The Hand Over, a satirical piece by Nick Warren where Newton plays the big-shot boss.
Still, the power-crazed empowerment boys are amateurs compared to the asset-stripping old white boys club, he crows. Yet they’re catching up fast. “Your ‘how much can I rape’ is so much better than our ‘how much can I make’” he says.
It’s rife with alliteration, allegory and invective, which Newton spits out with indignant venom. It’s funny yet hugely vicious, perfect for an arts show but perhaps too provocative to go mainstream.
The opening piece is the old poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin by Robert Browning. Newton makes the story fascinating as he switches character and accents and even switches age.
Rats is directed by Sylvaine Strike, who recently directed Newton in The Miser, a play full of over-exuberant flourishes, and some of that has been brought into Rats too. In theory the thread linking the three pieces is the notion that we are all creatures of survival. That’s almost superfluous, because this is just a show where Newton demonstrates his craft and virtuosity.
This is what actors are aiming for. The ability to shift within your bones and become another person.
The final piece, by Newton himself, is a poignant cameo of the old Indian waiter, watching his business die from a lack of trade. “You’re a waiter, just wait,” he snaps at himself as he anxiously peers through the window, trying to draw customers in by sheer willpower.
He chats to his imaginary guest and jovially greets passers by. But every upbeat moment is killed dead by the simple act of pausing for a second, letting his face slip into the haggard and hopeless soul behind. I wanted to give him a hug and slip him some money.
Rats runs at Sandton’s Auto & General Theatre on the Square until Saturday. DM
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