2013 South African Theatre Retrospectives: Comedy, Variety and Storytelling

The final days of December are a wonderful time to take a look back at the theatre productions seen on stage in South Africa over the past year. The third part of this five part series focuses on stand-up comedy, variety shows and storytelling, following retrospectives looking at new South African plays and revivals of classic South African plays and South African productions of international plays. The final two articles will zoom in on musical theatre, opera and cabaret, and dance and physical theatre. All feature comments from members of South Africa's theatre community about their respective theatrical highlights of 2013.

Stand-up comedy was, as always, a huge feature of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year, with many of the productions and artists that were featured there travelling around the country before or after the festival. Comics like Angel Campey and Oliver Booth emerged as names to watch, while artists like Siv Ngesi and Rob van Vuuren consolidated their considerable talents in new shows.

Campey appeared in YES REALLY, ANGEL, a show that took its starting point from her name, which in this new comedienne's own words was the perfect name to be a stripper, but otherwise really cut down other career options. Booth's show - billed as the views of a 'man-boy' from the suburbs who is trying to make sense of the world around him, but struggling to take it all too seriously - was titled BOOTH'S AND ALL.

Ngesi's new presentation, RACE CARD, was based on the bestselling book, THE RACIST'S GUIDE TO THE PEOPLE OF SOUTH AFRICA', and set out to expose all the wacky "truths" about the colourful people of the country. Van Vuuren's production, WHATWHAT! - described as stand-up comedy with a twist - stood out for actress Ella Gabriel: 'Rob's show had his sell-out audience in stitches at the National Arts Festival, after which I found myself quoting gags from his set for months.'

Other performers who toured with stand-up shows included Emmy-nominated Loyiso Gola, with LOYISO GOLA LIVE, self-proclaimed Jewish Xhosa comedian Nik Rabinowitz, with STAND UP and political ventriloquist Conrad Koch with THE CHESTER MISSING ROADSHOW.

Variety might seem like a category of performance that holds much currency in this day and age. Of course, stand-up comedy is in itself an offshoot of variety show performances, and how else could one include some of the diverse forms of performance that pop up in South Africa from time to time? One artist in particular transcended the humble origins of variety by producing two shows that director of Fourword Productions, Oskar Brown called 'world class'. That artist is Stuart Lightbody and his two show, ILLUSIVE and STUPERSTITION, served up an astounding series of magical sleight of hand tricks and mind games. Brown, who caught STUPERSTITION at the Edinburgh Festival, elaborates: 'I watched a lot of magic shows, but none came close to the simplicity and charm of STUPERSTITION. It was an honour to finally see Stuart perform and I still don't know how he made magic happen.'

Brown raved about the South African presence at the Edinburgh Festival, which featured an entire South African season at one of the venues. 'The most amazing aspect of the festival for me,' Brown said, 'was meeting and spending time with South African theatre people that I had not previously met. It was great to see so much of "our" theatre represented there.'

Another production that played the festival, as well as various other festivals in South Africa and in more formal theatre settings around the country, was THE EPICENE BUTCHER AND OTHER STORIES FOR CONSENTING ADULTS. A compilation of several stories, all told by Jemma Kahn in the Japanese storytelling style of kamishibai, the show seems to be an unbeatable favourite wherever it is performed. Of the show, Brown says, 'The show has travelled so much and has made the distance between Cape Town and Johannesburg feel a lot smaller. Pity that it took an international festival to bridge that gap.'

Perhaps unusually, shows derived from storytelling was a prominent feature of the South African theatre landscape this year, and TIN BUCKET DRUM, another production originating from a culturally orientated oral tradition, proved to be hugely popular. Created by Neil Coppen, the piece told the story of Nomvula, a child born with a revolutionary and noisy heart beat into a cruel and silent dictatorship. Arts publicist, Christine Skinner, loved the show for 'its power in simple storytelling using humour, pathos and a rich combination of theatrical tools, rounded off with the incredible in sync timing between performers Mpume Mthombeni and Wake Mahlobo.'

TIN BUCKET DRUM also held an overwhelming appeal for young audiences, with heads of Springfield Convent Senior School's Culture Club, Lauren de Bruyn and Kirsten Jacobs, both mentioning the show among their personal favourites of the year. De Bruyn says that the show was 'one of the highlights this year was without a doubt.' She continues: 'I was blown away by the performance. It was special to see something so uniquely African and the sound effects were so clever and effective. Watching Wake Mahlobo doing the sound effects was almost a performance in itself!' Jacobs loved the influence of physical theatre, magical realism and puppetry on the show and how the piece finally came together: 'The simplistic manner in which the story was brought to life mesmerized me. The show was captivating, showing that one doesn't need various props, an extravagant setting or lighting to create a great show.'

Did you see a performance in the vein of those described above that stood out for you this year? Tell us about it in the comment box below. Next year is sure to bring more stand-up shows to our stages, and hopefully we shall also see shows that demonstrate some of the other skills of our local performers that may otherwise fade into the background come to prominence.

Photo credit: Sam Love (THE EPICENE BUTCHER)

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From This Author David Fick

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