Maverick Life

THEATRE

Marianne Thamm — putting the humanity into stand-up comedy

Marianne Thamm — putting the humanity into stand-up comedy
Marianne Thamm in 'Round of Applause South Africa Still Standing Reloaded'. (Photo: Supplied / The Baxter)

Daily Maverick journalist and associate editor Marianne Thamm has a new live show – with our most contested election yet about to take place, its timing could not be more appropriate.

A seasoned, top-of-her-game journalist spilling the beans, telling us what she thinks of all the brouhaha, the political hi-jinx, the racists in Orania, and about the ex-South African billionaire whose bloated face she keeps in a little photo frame on the table in the centre of the stage. 

Plus there’s her sassy insider perspective, the behind-the-scenes intrigues, her stash of books that’ll relieve constipation or prevent diarrhoea, and the darling little DA-loving mouse that saw too much. 

There are the humongous quantities of stolen rands that translate into numbers so high you cannot begin to imagine them, but Marianne Thamm will share a method of counting that will give you a very good idea of just how badly we’ve been done in, swindled, taken to the proverbial cleaners.  

Plus, there’s insight into how she thinks, where her information comes from, where to find the best Wi-Fi in the Northern Cape, and how this saucy journalist with 40-odd years of experience arrives at some of her conclusions. Basically catching us up on a mere fraction of what’s happening in this bizarre country of ours…

All told, it really shouldn’t be funny. It should be a tearjerker, a tragedy, a reason to go home at the end of the night and polish off every last drop of alcohol while googling Venezuela’s immigration requirements.

Being reminded of all that happens, has happened and probably will happen under our government’s watch should feel a lot like being metaphorically poked in the eye with a dirty stick. 

Round of Applause Reloaded is a piece of theatre that’s been called “performance journalism” but which I would describe as straight-up stand-up comedy.

In it, Thamm reminds us that we live in a very strange place. Not only in a country where businessmen get away with stealing entire electricity substations, but in a world where the thieving Guptas are able to hide out in plain sight on the tiny Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. How they got there, though, is one of Thamm’s many gorgeous jokes, told with such a lack of self-consciousness that I am convinced half the audience I was with believed what she described was true. 

And why not? After all, whatever the truth is, it’s probably stranger than Thamm’s hilarious fiction involving a meisie from some corner of South Africa who happens to work for Qatar airways and happens to have one of the nation’s confusing accents.

This is Thamm’s magic: she has seen and done and heard and read so much and spoken to so many South Africans, and despite all she knows, she manages to tell a joke with a relatively straight face. Most of the time. In many moments, she cannot help but giggle at herself, the truth being simply too bizarre, too outrageous.

Marianne Thamm

Marianne Thamm in ‘Round of Applause South Africa Still Standing Reloaded’. (Photo: Supplied / The Baxter)

Ultimately, in this entertainment space that Thamm has carved out, the line between truth and fiction, serious fact and impossible joke doesn’t entirely exist.

There is a lot for her to cram into this show. It feels compact, almost too brief given the vastness of what she knows.

The friend I watched it with went on at length about wishing the show had continued for another few hours. Because, of course, these days listening to clever, smart, exceptionally funny people is a rare privilege you want to hang on to. Thamm’s only challenge is perhaps that she knows too much. At one point she tells the audience that the reason she keeps her script with her through the show is to keep herself in line; without it, she says, she might go on forever, telling endless anecdotes, sharing many more intimate and intricate details, perhaps startling us with the depth of South Africa’s depravity. 

You get the feeling she has an endless supply of funny stories, a kinkily twisted take on every tale she tells. She must be heaven around a dinner table. Then again, this theatrical format is much better because it prevents the boring people from interjecting. Here you have Thamm exclusively for the duration. 

And for people with short attention spans, it’s a great show because no sooner does she let the cat out of the bag about one story than she will have dragged a dozen connected stories into the fray. Alarming and eye-watering stories come out of her like lightning, a blitzkrieg barrage of events that have already happened, reminding us that, in the real world, time whizzes by, making right now the best moment to roll up our sleeves and make efforts to stop the runaway train that is our struggling democracy. 

Thamm does not hold back. Happily, she calls a spade a spade and an arsehole and arsehole, and she has no compunctions looking at her fellow South Africans in the eye while expressing disgust at the likes of Markus Jooste, no matter that he recently committed suicide. He’s slime, she reminds us, and it’s not too soon to joke about him. Nor his death. 

Scuzzballs aside, what Thamm tries to do using facts and storytelling and jokes both highbrow and low, is remind us – the people of South Africa – of our remarkable resilience, our love of democracy, and our optimism. Despite her talent for comedy and her considerable knowledge base, her real gift, I suspect, is her humanity. She simply brims with it, frequently reasserting her ethics, underscoring her sense of moral fervour, and asking us to step up and join in.

It is inspirational to hear her tell stories about real South Africans who continue to believe in a better tomorrow, who will turn up to wait for stolen trains alongside train tracks that have been stolen as well. Hearing about our nation’s many hopeful people makes you want to have hope and staying power too.

Will things get better – or worse – in the future? Thamm asks this rhetorical question again and again, tells us that it’s the thing most South Africans want to know – as though journalists possess some sort of crystal ball and can supply answers like soothsayers of old. 

Thamm doesn’t provide a straightforward answer to this question, the reason being that, either way, the answer is a double-edged sword. 

If we believe that things will get worse, we are likely to give up hope. Besides, she tells us, they will not get worse for the rich, who will simply continue to exist in some sort of privatised fantasy. Some will flee to greener pastures, as many have already done. But many more will continue to suffer.

Then again, if you tell humans that things will get better, they will stop putting in the effort. Isn’t that what happened with all that rainbow nation rhetoric we were fed in the 1990s? So many of us bought the postcard-pretty picture of a rosy tomorrow that we forgot to keep an eye on who was running the show. We stopped paying attention.

I think Marianne Thamm would like more people to keep their eyes on the road and make the effort to grab the steering wheel and stretch their legs a bit so that their feet reach the pedals. After all, the road we’re travelling on is full of potholes.

And there is only so much our tireless, relentless, frequently attacked and sometimes murdered journalists can do. 

South Africa needs more of us to participate.

This show, and the act of turning up to experience it alongside your fellow South Africans, would be a fine place to start. DM

Round of Applause Reloaded is at the Baxter Studio in Cape Town until 27 April. Tickets are available on Webtickets.

Marianne Thamm is Daily Maverick associate editor. Round of Applause Reloaded is produced independently of Daily Maverick, as was this review. 

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  • Hari Seldon says:

    I went last went last week and her show is brilliant – was hilarious, interesting – no fascinating, and left me feeling that we are at a moment in SA history where have an opportunity again to pivot to becoming a successful country that unleashes the potential of our vibrant diverse people – but we need to cast our vote wisely. Encourage every young person of voting age to see her show.

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