Daily Maverick

Review: Tobacco, and the Harmful Effects Thereof

Andrew Buckland’s latest is a charming piece of excellent storytelling with a strong undercurrent of unhappiness. Puff, puff but definitely don’t pass on this intriguing production. By LESLEY STONES.

Watching Andrew Buckland on stage is an emotional experience. You don’t know whether to admire his talent or cringe for his character. You end up doing both simultaneously.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling. There’s an ache in your heart, a laugh in your throat and a sense of pity taking hold of your brain. Still, the feelings your body is going through are nothing compared to what Buckland is putting his own body through in Tobacco, and the Harmful Effects Thereof.

The play is adapted from a monologue by Russian author Anton Chekov in which a henpecked husband, Ivan, is bullied by his wife into giving a public lecture about the harmful effects of tobacco. Knowing little about his topic, and nervous behind a podium, Ivan rambles off at a tangent and talks about his domineering wife, his callous kids and his gnawing desire to escape from this drudgery and go adventuring.

The text has been adapted by William Harding, the resident playwright at the Fortune Cookie Theatre Company, and embellished with material from other sources including Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde.

The result is an entertaining script that explores the maddening confusion of a long-term relationship, where the person you adore has also become an object of resentment and loathing. At times it’s funny, either physically or verbally, and then it delivers a swipe of blistering reality that kindles pity or even regrets for a situation that has buried a once lively man under domestic subservience.

The script itself is fascinating and entertaining and made more marvellous by the physicality injected by Buckland and director Sylvaine Strike. I sometimes find Strike’s amplified physical movements too extreme, sliding from theatre into burlesque, but here she’s achieved a perfect pitch – movements are merely exaggerated, not overdone. It turns the intellectual nature of the monologue into a full theatrical affair. Buckland is the perfect man to do that with his pliable face and an extraordinary physical fitness and balance that allows his character to perform some impressive feats.

Strike says the play explores the paradox of life, where the fervour of love is matched by fear and anger for the same person, where we yearn to escape from the place where we feel safest, and how we may be utterly alone despite the company of many.

It’s centred on a simple set designed by Chen Nakar, with a lectern that morphs into a hide, a look-out post and a canoe as Ivan weaves his stories of fantastic escapism.

The lighting by Strike and Ali Madiga is also excellent, starkly exposing Ivan or enveloping him in a warmer glow. At times the light shifts to highlight the presence of his domineering wife in the background, silent yet sill managing to condemn or chastise her useless ‘scarecrow’ husband. The wife, played by Toni Morkel, is a frumpish shrew, hardly matching the glowing picture that Ivan sometimes paints of her in his besotted moments. Until he draws her close later, and the love shines temporarily from both sets of eyes.

It’s a charming piece of excellent storytelling with a strong undercurrent of unhappiness.

This wordy play demands good attention from the audience, but with such a turmoil of emotions raging inside you, you’re not going to look away for a moment. DM

Tobacco, and the Harmful Effects Thereof runs at The Market Theatre until March 6.


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