BWW Reviews: Dynamic and Disturbing VASLAV Lays Bare Nijinsky's Soul at the Kalk Bay Theatre

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Godfrey Johnson in VASLAV
Godfrey Johnson in VASLAV

Word of mouth is a funny thing. Whispers about VASLAV could be heard around the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown when the play premiered there earlier this month and by the time opening night arrived in Cape Town, the expectation for VASLAV to be a delicate, meditative and affirmative reflection on its subject, the iconic Vaslav Nijinsky, was set - at least in my mind. Written by Karen Jeynes, directed by Lara Bye and starring Godfrey Johnson, VASLAV is anything but delicate, meditative and affrimative. It is a dynamic, vigorous and disturbing exploration of Nijinsky's mind just prior to his internment in an asylum in Switzerland, based on the diaries he wrote over six weeks before he was committed, on the edge of a complete nervous breakdown.

VASLAV is set inside a ward at an asylum, with Jeynes structuring the renowned dancer and choreographer's words as a disquieting stream of consciousness that restlessly shifts from topic to topic. Johnson speaks not only as Vaslav, but also in the voice of his sister, Bronislava Nijinska, as various critics of his work and as his attending physician. His collaborator and lover, Sergei Diaghilev, also features strongly throughout the piece, as do Nijinskys wife, Romola de Pulszky, and daughter, Kyra. But this is no typical one man show where Johnson plays each character as a distinct entity. Johnson plays one part, Vaslav, and the others are channelled through his mind, which of course is how they are portrayed in the diaries. In a show where the line between sanity and madness is indistinct, this blurs the lines even further. As Vaslav's loss of himself becomes more and more accentuated, the moments when he snaps into clarity - such as those where he addresses Diaghilev or in the final moments of the play - only further crystallise his descent into madness.

Godfrey Johnson as Vaslav Photo Credit Dex Goodman
Godfrey Johnson in Vaslav
Photo Credit: Dex Goodman

Local audiences will know Johnson primarily for his cabaret work, so it will come as no surprise that VASLAV is structured using a cabaret framework, with the piano creating a soundscape against which the monologue plays out and songs that punctuate the narrative. The accompaniment that Johnson provides under his speech is striking, with motifs pointing out subtext and offering some sense of connection between the thoughts in Vaslav's mind. Some of the syncopations Johnson achieves when music and speech come together are jaw-dropping. The songs - which sound like little Brechtian ditties - work less well, partly because they served too obviously as devices to alleviate the tension of the play and also because they are structured too typically using what most people agree to be the conventions of songwriting. If ever there was a case for a score that played with longer, expressionist musical phrases and unrhymed lyrics, VASLAV is it.

Bye handles the direction of VASLAV as if she were staging a complex modernist poem, which suits the material and helps to envelop the audience in the workings of Vaslav's innermost thoughts. Movement coach Fiona du Plooy helps Johnson to find a physical vocabulary for portraying a broken dancer, blending key stances and gestures that can be seen in historical photographs of Nijinsky with the body of the man he has become.

The set and costume for VASLAV are co-ordinated by Joanna Evans. The set, which consists of the piano and chair, dozens of red notebooks, and a screen onto which images of Nijinsky as well as period dance footage are projected, almost works. The photographic projections add nothing to the piece and it is only when filmed dance appeared in counterpoint to Johnson's performance that the projections begin to layer the work visually. If the resolution of the film clips were high enough, a better option might be to wash the space with the images.

Godfrey Johnson in VASLAV
Godfrey Johnson in VASLAV

The costumes, on the other hand, are pitch perfect: a series of layers which are stripped away to reveal a vest and long johns as Vaslav strips away layers of social convention and sanity. There may yet be room to extend this progression; at present, the potentially compelling final image of a naked Vaslav under the fading lights, stripped of everything, remains unrealised. Jon Keevy's lighting, by turns atmospheric and playful, helps in no small way to cement the volatility of VASLAV and its subject.

VASLAV is a hybrid of play, poem and cabaret that is characterised by contradictions. Nijinsky was brilliant, but quite unhinged. He was disciplined in translating his ideas to form, but a loose cannon in many other ways. In adapting his writing for the stage, Jeynes looks at the sanity in the man's madness and the madness in what the world of the time considered sane. Part of the play is invested with dark and seductive eroticism, while other sections purposely swing toward sardonic and sophomoric obscenities. Johnson is pushed himself further as a cabaret artist here that he ever has before and the results is haunting, a shadowy reflection on the relationship between genius and madness and just how difficult it is to fit in being human in the midst of all that angst.

VASLAV will be performed at the Kalk Bay Theatre on Tuesday to Saturdays at 8pm, until 9 August. Tickets cost R80 downstairs, with gallery seats costing R70. To book, visit www.kalkbaytheatre.co.za. Guests can enjoy a delicious supper before the show. For information and to book a table for dinner, contact 079 361 8275. VASLAV carries and age restriction of 13 due to language and sexual references.

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David Fick Born and bred in South Africa, David has loved theatre since the day he set foot on stage in his preschool nativity play. He graduated with a Master of Arts (Theatre and Performance) degree from the University of Cape Town in 2005, having previously graduated from the same university with a First Class Honours in Drama in 2002. An ardent essayist, David won the Keswick Prize for Lucidity for his paper "Homosexual Representation in the Broadway Musical: the development of homosexual identities and relationships from PATIENCE to RENT". Currently, he teaches Dramatic Arts at a high school in Cape Town and also freelances as a theatremaker and performer.


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