South Africa

THEATRE REVIEW

‘Loyiso Gola, Live at The Bioscope’ marks a welcome renaissance

‘Loyiso Gola, Live at The Bioscope’ marks a welcome renaissance
‘Loyiso Gola, Live at The Bioscope’. (Photo: Lesley Stones)

‘Loyiso Gola, Live at The Bioscope’ marked a few firsts: his first short run of stand-up comedy after five months of lockdown; my first live show in just as long; and The Bioscope’s first live event in its new venue at 44 Stanley, in Milpark, Johannesburg. Not exactly historic, but an important milestone in the return to freedom.

The show is over, but comedian Loyiso Gola doesn’t want his performance high to end.

He waves goodbye as our Covid-thin audience of around 20 applauds, then stays on stage and says,  let’s talk.

None of us wants the magic to end, so we dive in and enjoy the chat before reconvening at the bar where the banter continues. And we’re still home in time for curfew.

The Bioscope’s new venue at 44 Stanley in Milpark, Johannesburg. (Photo: Bioscope)

Loyiso Gola, Live at The Bioscope marks a few firsts: his first short run of stand-up comedy after five months of lockdown; my first live show in just as long; and The Bioscope’s first live event in its new venue at 44 Stanley in Milpark, Johannesburg. Not exactly historic, but an important milestone in the return to freedom.

Gola seems a little more hesitant than in the old days. Not rusty as much as more thoughtful, weighing up his words more carefully than in the days when theatres were full, audiences were raucous and life was carefree. Now there are fewer of us and our laughing muscles are out of practice. 

Loyiso Gola live at The Bioscope. (Photo: Lesley Stones)

It’s a well-crafted routine with gentle and respectful audience interaction. No lampooning or insulting those willing to come out and pay to see a live performance. It’s contemplative and slower-paced, as he speaks of history, life lessons, breathing classes and being the only black man at a party. Of how white people need to unlearn their superiority complex and black people need to unlearn their inferiority complex. Playing to a diverse audience of black, white, English and French, Gola appeals to everyone.

I’d been waiting for months to see which of Joburg’s theatres would bravely reopen first, navigating harsh restrictions of curfews, social distancing and smaller casts, crews and audiences to offer salvation to the show-starved few willing to sit in the dark with strangers. 

The 47-seat cinema still boasts its trademark old car seats, but it’s all cooler and classier than the crushed space at Maboneng. (Photo: Bioscope)

I hadn’t expected it to be The Bioscope because it’s a cinema, not a theatre. But it’s always been a pioneer with a sense of adventure. After being the first cinema to reopen in Joburg, it scored a double win by using its new space as a theatre too.

“Loyiso just walked in and looked at the spot, said ‘can we do comedy here’, and booked it for a week,” says the Bioscope’s founder and owner, Russell Grant. “Comedians just have to gym; they have to exercise in front of people. Loyiso has to record a show soon so he has to exercise his set and flex and work out. The timing was great because people are excited and courageous and gatvol enough to come out.”

The new venue at 44 Stanley is lovely. It’s elegant, light and airy with pale wood and movie paraphernalia, a bar and some squishy settee areas that spill into a courtyard. The 47-seat cinema still boasts its trademark old car seats, but it’s all cooler and classier than the crushed space at Maboneng where a quiet moment in an arthouse movie could be spoiled by loud music or car horns from the streets. 

The Bioscope’s new venue at 44 Stanley in Milpark, Johannesburg. (Photo: Bioscope)

The move became necessary when Maboneng’s party vibe grew and audience numbers for thoughtful movies dwindled. “Good cinema is quiet and patient, and Maboneng is very vibrant,” Grant says. “Then in 2019 the highway closed for eight months, and there were xenophobic riots in town, and people didn’t want to go.” Income from renting the cinema for private functions also withered as patrons shifted to more sedate neighbourhoods.

Grant first tested 44 Stanley by opening a pop-up store for his second company, Limited Edish, which sells artwork and designer T-shirts. 

“I walked in here every day with the fountains and greenery and it really felt great,” he says. “Places go through ups and downs, but in my opinion 44 has never had a down. It’s always been well-curated and managed.”

The property owners, Group 44, were keen to welcome the Bioscope and a deal was done.

Then the Covid-19 lockdown hit, and everything was paused. But it was less of a disaster for the Bioscope than you’d think. “We were scheduled to be dark in March and April and launch in May, so in a weird way the timing was perfect. I’d given notice at Maboneng so I didn’t have to pay rent, and I hadn’t moved in here (yet) so I didn’t have to pay rent. I said I’ll survive if you don’t charge me,” Grant explains. 

During lockdown the screen, projector and speakers were moved to the new site, footlights were added and a projection booth built. The well-spaced seats have space for food and drink, which patrons can take into the cinema with them.

The investment cost about R400,000. When Grant launched the original Bioscope a decade ago with his then co-founder Darryl Els, it cost R120,000. Both asked their fathers for a loan.

The Bioscope’s demographics aren’t defined by colour but by intellect, Grant says. “The word ‘woke’ is thrown around a lot but the good intention of that term as someone who seeks out something that’s different, those are our regulars who get what we’re trying to do.” 

That encompasses daft ideas as well as serious documentaries and film festivals. Noodlebox nights include a Chinese meal with a kung-fu movie, and tickets for “Ugly Cry Nights” come with a box of tissues.

Theatre was never staged at Maboneng, due to gentlemen’s agreement with PopArt Theatre next door. At 44 Stanley they can do what they like. “We’re so chuffed and so happy that we were able to restart and reset and revitalise,” Grant says. “Towards the end at Maboneng, I’d been getting a bit tired, and it’s been great to have this moment of renaissance. Now in this new area, we’re in a position to play even better.” DM/ML

Next up at The Bioscope is the Jozi Film Festival. For details see: www.thebioscope.co.za/

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