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BWW Reviews: ...MISKIEN a Courageous, Meaningful and Transcendent Work of Art

Albert Pretorius and Gideon Lombard in ...MISKIEN
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

Where were you five years ago? Five years ago, you might have been at school, studying or working. You probably had Facebook, but might only have been thinking about whether Twitter was worth your time. You would have witnessed Jacob Zuma's election as President of South Africa after all charges against him over the arms deal were officially withdrawn. Perhaps you despaired when the Dalai Lama's visa application to enter South Africa was refused and celebrated when the first Mandela Day was observed. Maybe you mourned the death of Helen Suzman or Michael Jackson. Maybe you didn't. But whatever it was you were doing, it was in a world without ...MISKIEN and the world into which ...MISKIEN, which celebrates its fifth anniversary this year in a run at the Baxter Theatre, was born.

...MISKIEN was the debut production of The Pink Couch, the company founded by Tara Notcutt, Albert Pretorius, Gideon Lombard and Mat Lewis. Written by Notcutt, Pretorius and Lombard, it was a landmark production for the fledgling theatre-makers and toured the festival circuit, locally and internationally, drawing audiences into the world of Cormac and Layton, two characters that feel like they have stepped out of your life and onto the stage.

Cormac lives with his often-absent girlfriend, and his days begin with "Lester Burnhams" in the shower, and continue with soul-killing shifts at a dead-end job, the yoke of which is only lightened by the fact that the IT department has not blocked his access to free porn. Layton lives on his own, where he warms food up in a very inadequate microwave, and gets through his days at work with no big dramas. Both live for happy hour at their local pub, where the two sit down to have a few beers at the end of the day. Like us, they say a lot, but don't say anything - and they mean what they don't say a lot. When someone doesn't understand what you're not saying, what happens next? ...MISKIEN offers one response to that scenario, and it is one that that packs an incredible emotional punch.

Gideon Lombard in ...MISKIEN
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

The first reason that ...MISKIEN achieves that kind of deep soul engagement is that its narrative is delivered in a profoundly brilliant way. Made up of several motifs of action, which are repeated and varied, and layered over and juxtaposed with one another ...MISKIEN draws audiences in, breath by breath, until, in its climax, you are in precisely the same emotional space as the characters. Your stillness matches theirs; the conflict they feel is one you know that you have experienced too. As the play ends, you know it ends in the only way that it can. But you still hope that the next time you play out that scene in your own life, that your ending will be a different one. And if you see ...MISKIEN again, you hope that Cormac and Layton's will be too. That's how immediate the experience of this play is in performance.

Secondly, Cormac and Layton are brought to life in two virtuoso performances by Pretorius and Lombard. To re-inhabit two roles that were created half a decade ago is a challenge for any actor, but any fears that the pair might be resting on their laurels or unable to create the searing honesty and chemistry they had in earlier years of the considerable run that ...MISKIEN has enjoyed are unfounded. If anything, the years that have passed have given the show a more desperate urgency and higher stakes. It feels as though Pretorius and Lombard are performing the play for the first time. The power of their onstage connection remains as magnificent as it ever was and each has made any baggage that life experience has heaped upon him work in service of the piece.

Notcutt, in her direction and design of the piece, is the third part of the magic spell that ...MISKIEN casts upon its audiences. Her scenic design, a simple set-up of table and chairs surrounded by a sea of crumpled papers is remarkable in the way it contributes to the way the ...MISKIEN plays out, as effective symbolically as it is aesthetically. (The lighting by Matt Lansing magnifies its efficacy, with practical lights offering atmosphere, and a great deal of the lighting coming from floor level, casting tall shadows on the walls of the Golden Arrow Studio.) In addition to guiding audiences precisely to where she wants them, Nocutt's direction displays a finely-tuned sense of rhythm, something that has been a key feature in all of her directorial work. And like the actors, her recreation of her own work for this anniversary production feels organic rather than rehashed.

Albert Pretorius and Gideon Lombard in ...MISKIEN
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer

Five years ago, I was in a very different place to the one in which I find myself today. Five years ago, I did not know what it meant to be open in a relationship. I was less brave about communicating my real feelings to my friends, to my peers and to my colleagues. Sometimes I still clam up and sometimes I am still less brave than I would like to be, but sometimes I am better at connecting with the people around me, and ...MISKIEN was one of the things that helped me to start making that shift. In South Africa, we hear so much about how South African theatre of the past helped to change the politics of the country, but it is the plays of personal protest - like Gcina Mhlophe's HAVE YOU SEEN ZANDILE? and Athol Fugard's "MASTER HAROLD"... AND THE BOYS - that spoke more to me about the injustices of apartheid than the more didactic protest plays ever have. And today, when we hear so much about "theatre for identity" or "theatre for reconciliation", when people call for contemporary political theatre to pick up where the theatre for resistance picked up, or for plays to exist for the agenda of social or political commentary, it is a play like ...MISKIEN, which remembers that the theatre is more than a simple soapbox, that speaks to me better as any and all of those things. It is a courageous, meaningful and transcendent work of art.

...MISKIEN will be performed at the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio until 27 September at 8.15pm. Tickets for the historic Birthday Bash on 25 September when ...MISKIEN marks its incredible 100th performance and The Pink Couch turns five cost R145, allowing audience members to celebrate in style with the cast and team after the show with pink champagne and cake. All other tickets cost R120. Bookings can be made online at Computicket or by calling 0861 915 8000 as well as at any Shoprite Checkers outlet. The show has an age guideline of 16+ for language.

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From This Author David Fick