BWW Review: Godfrey Johnson soars as VASLAV at The Fugard Theatre
This was my first time seeing this stunning piece of theatre and I am not surprised by all the glowing reviews and the three Fleur du Cap nominations it received. Godfrey Johnson throws himself whole-heartedly into his performance and is quite mesmerising.
The play is based on the diaries written by Vaslav Nijinsky and was brought to life by a combination of Johnson, Karen Jeynes and Lara Bye. It was also directed by Bye. I particularly loved the simplicity of it all - or at least how simple it all seemed on the surface. There was nothing simple about Johnson's performance or the excellent attention to detail in the staging. The whole piece moved with a musicality that was befitting of the subject matter, and yet there was virtually no actual dancing in it.
Johnson's ability to talk to and fully engage with the audience as he played various characters, all while sitting at the piano and playing, is extraordinary. I loved how a small change in hand placements could signify a different character. There was no need to spell it out. Johnson merely adjusted his posture and you could see he had become someone else.
The musical score gave me goose bumps. It really captured the fractured state of mind of Nijinsky. The soundtrack, virtually all played by Johnson live through the performance, soared from light and airy so you could just imagine this dancer leaping through the air, to staccato or dramatic as he gets confused and his state of being deteriorates.
The lighting and overall staging of VASLAV is a thing of beauty. A plain archway with a white curtain stands at the back and shows the audience a projected image of a hallway as if seen from the hospital room Nijinsky was confined to. Other projections included images and short videos of Nijinsky and other characters. There is a piano to one side, where a lot of the action takes place as Johnson provides a soundtrack to his own performance. Other than that, the lighting (originally designed by Jon Keevy) moved with the flow of the piece to complete the mood of each moment.
My only technical quibble is with the use of the two microphones on stands. I think the performance would've been better served if Johnson had a mic on him. He moved around too much, making it very obvious when he was speaking into the microphone and when it wasn't able to catch his voice. This was especially noticeable on the mic standing away from the piano.
I also found Johnson's accent a little problematic. There were moments when he sounded very South African, and it just didn't fit when the character is constantly talking about how he is from Poland but considers himself Russian. There were brief moments where it just jarred me out of the story. Thankfully, this wasn't too often. For the most part, Johnson kept his accent fairly neutral, which allowed him to switch between characters easily.
Overall, it's a clever piece of theatre that makes you feel things as the music, the movement and Johnson's utter commitment to the character pull you along. It felt raw and real but at the same time surreal, as if it were all just a dream.
Photo credit: Claude Barnardo
VASLAV is on in The Fugard Studio Theatre from 5 to 17 November, Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm with matinee performances on Saturdays and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets from R150 to R160 can be booked through The Fugard Theatre box office on 021 461 4554 or through The Fugard Theatre's website at www.thefugard.com.