Reviews: South African talent shines brightly in Festival offerings

The delightful And The Girls In Their Sunday Dresses
The delightful And The Girls In Their Sunday Dresses
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Rainy Hall, at Assembly Hall, is sweaty and humid, the soundtrack a throbbing hum. A mother and son, black workers with garden fork and sledgehammer, enter an African farm kitchen, and one white girl drifts in, bird-like.

There will be rain, after midnight.

Bongile Mantsai as John and Hilda Cronje as Julie in Mies Julie

Bongile Mantsai as John and Hilda Cronje as Julie in Mies Julie

A great-grandmother’s ghost lies in the roots of a tree, tying this mother and son to the land, like the Voortrekker “squatters” who built their farm over a graveyard.

Mies Julie, the boss’s daughter, is tempting or ordering John, her father’s favourite “clever kaffir”, to take her to the party whose music is pulsing in the distance.

His mother is cooking for her pregnant dog, has cared for her since birth; the girl lies on the kitchen table. While he is sharpening a sickle, she demands he kiss her foot. They’re playing a game they’ve played since childhood, but in the simmering post-apartheid world, the new rules are sexual submission and humiliation, in their emotionally drenched, fatal coupling.

Mies Julie, in Yael Farber’s new adaptation of Strindberg’s play, features a heart-breaking performance by Hilda Cronje, steeped in blood.

Eighteen years after Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa, the black farm boot boy played by Bongile Mantsai still has “no identity”, and is devoured by cold, trembling rage. The message is that while the new state has opened possibilities of inter-racial love, and fantasies of escape, apartheid is still eating its children.

Even by the standards of the Fringe, Mantsai then pulls off an impressive transformation. An hour so hour later, he’s on stage in Vocal is Lekka, an African “rat pack” show, in black tie and sequined waistcoat. The show has beautiful voices, a slick and witty delivery, of African and swing favourites, but it’s a battle in a daylight slot, to a crowd with bottled water and grapes, where what you need is a cocktail on the way in.

Everything in Assembly’s season of South African shows is vastly more interesting than most Fringe fare, and it’s never less than the highest professional quality.

While Mies Julie is gut-wrenchingly powerful, And the Girls In Their Sunday Dresses won my heart.

The Woman and the Lady – Lesego Motsepe and Hlengiwe Lushaba, leading South African comedians – wait in an eternal rice queue, squabbling and bonding over a “perpetual chair”. Like Waiting for Godot, but with silliness and sisterhood, the tragicomic partnership of an indignant ageing tart with fat legs propositioning the audience, and a flat cleaner of more puritan stripe with a sad past of her own, is infectious. It’s a little lost for an ending, but a life-affirming afternoon out; the snatches of singing wonderful.

Both And The Girls and Mies Julie fit a contemporary setting. Woza Albert! does not, and suffers. This multi-award winning 1981 play, the parable of Christ’s coming to apartheid South Africa, brought a standing ovation from its small audience when I was there. But it’s 30 years old. Mocking, understanding, undermining the past – its Afrikaner guards, played with false noses – felt too close to propaganda justifying uncomfortable present realities, with Jan Smuts Airport now renamed for Oliver Tambo.

I’d rather see a play about Christ skewering today’s enemies.

Theatre seasons overseas backed by any government body – here, Britain’s Cultural Olympiad, South Africa’s Department of Arts and Culture, and Brand South Africa – may shy away from anything dangerously provocative, work which attacks intractable issues or power that still corrupts in the home country. But what a strong start, and showcase for South African talent.

Mother to Mother and Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act by Athol Fugard are also placed in that past. Both, however, carry through, the former with a moving lament for a lost son and another mother’s daughter; the latter thanks to Athol Fugard’s beautiful language, and insights into relationships and infidelity, beyond race.

Statements is bravely played entirely nude. The two actors’ awkward nakedness opens out new meanings and underlines the puerile smugness of state voyeurism and repression.

I fell in love with Mother to Mother from the opening minute, with its images of a blonde American student, as a child, eating her privileged breakfast, on collision course with a group of young black men in the township. Meanwhile, a black mother endures a working day and impossible, frightening commute that breaks the backbone of her family. White people’s children leave for school knowing there’s a better tomorrow. In black areas they burn the school, in a place called Guguletu, “our pride”.

Which brings me, last, to the comedy, Barely Legal: The 18-Year-Old Democracy. Comedian Dave Levinsohn’s riff on baloney is brilliant; he comically confronts South Africa’s crime epidemic, including bicycle-jacking. Sharp and topical, he hits four stars; however, in the second half of this act Loyiso Gola was more scattershot, still feeling his way for the Edinburgh audience when I saw it, but he had three fellow South Africans in the audience in stitches with his Mandela.

All performances until 27 August. Mies Julie, today 2pm. And The Girls In Their Sunday Dresses, today 1:30pm. Mother to Mother today 4pm. Statements After An Arrest, today 2:15pm. Woza Albert!, today 4pm. Vocal Is Lekka, today 4:55pm. Barely Legal, today 9:10pm.

THEATRE

MIES Julie

Assembly Hall (Venue 35)

*****

And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses

Assembly George Square (Venue 3)

*****

Mother to Mother

Assembly George Square (Venue 3)

****

Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act by Athol Fugard

Assembly Hall (Venue 35)

****

Woza Albert!

Assembly Hall (Venue 35)

***

MUSIC

Vocal is Lekka

Assembly George Square (Venue 3)

***

COMEDY

Barely Legal: The 18-year-old Democracy

Assembly Roxy (Venue 139)

***

Susan Mansfield’s review of The Sewing Machine can be found here