BWW Reviews: Promising New Voices Emerge in Papercut Collective's UHM

Sive Gubangxa and Alex McCarthy in UHM

As a part of its mandate to showcase new voices, Artscape is presenting, in association with the newly formed Papercut Collective, UHM, a play that takes a satirical look at the enduring legacy of colonialism in Africa. Created through a process of improvisation and dramaturgy, the piece feels fresh and inventive in its approach to its themes. UHM recalls something of the Junction Avenue Theatre Company's THE FANTASTICAL HISTORY OF A USELESS MAN in its tone and approach to the larger than life and grotesque historical characters that feature in its narrative.

UHM uses the writing of a post-graduate thesis as the framework against which its action plays out. Writing on how Victorian writers depicted Africa, Coceka - known to those who cannot pronounce her name as CK - is haunted by figures like Queen Victoria, Cecil John Rhodes and Sol Plaatje. Letters from Plaatje mysteriously appear in her bed, while Queen Victoria and Rhodes attempt a more robust intervention by making themselves visible to the young scholar. Mystified by the whole situation, Coceka's boyfriend, Tony, begins to question the resultant bias in Coceka's thesis, which starts to prioritise texts like THE SETTLER AND THE SAVAGE over NATIVE LIFE IN SOUTH AFRICA.

The premise of UHM allows writers Alex McCarthy and Callum Tilbury to explore ideas around how language colonises cognition and whether language can be mastered as much as it masters its speakers. UHM plays cleverly with a number of edgy ideas and themes, which earned the script an award for Best Student Writing at this year's National Arts Festival. Nonetheless, there are moments where the play's plausibility lapses. Just where is Coceka's thesis supervisor? And why hasn't her supervisor pulled apart the shaky premise of her argument? There are also times when UHM gets a bit too post-modern for its own good, like when Queen Victoria and Cecil John Rhodes break out into a chorus of Beyoncé Knowles's "Upgrade U". The final resonance of the piece also needs fine tuning. While the play offers up an engaging exploration of culture, ethnicity and linguistics, its final scripted moments lack the impact of, say, the Coceka and Tony's meet-cute in the Company Gardens or some of the set pieces involved Queen Victoria and Rhodes.

Kathleen Stephens in UHM

The performances in UHM have grown since the run of the play at the National Arts Festival. McCarthy, playing the straight man to the bunch of crazies that inhabit the world of the play, in particular has found a better articulation of his character. Tilbury, who plays Rhodes, is joined by Kathleen Stephens as Queen Victoria, and the pair has a fine time on stage together, delivering brilliantly pitched comic performances. Jason Jacobs, as Sol Plaatje, manages to contrive some fine moments of sympathy for his character's plight. As Coceka, Sive Gubangxa delivers a clear depiction of a woman caught between two worlds; she could, however, intensify her emotional shifts in the last third of the play.

Koleka Putuma directs UHM with a sure hand, emphasising the physical aspects of her staging. There are some fantastic images and motifs in her work, particularly in the opening and closing moments of the play. There is also some wonderful use of sound in the piece, underscoring and making magical the elegant visual environment created for the production by Jacobs and Stephens. What appears fundamental to the Papercut Collective's approach to making theatre is the sense of collaboration that characterises their work. Although each member of the team has his or her own portfolio and associated credit, there is a completely fluid feeling that runs through all aspects of the piece.

As an exercise in bringing new voices to the stage, this production of UHM is a credit to Artscape's intentions. The piece showcases the work of a group of promising young theatre-makers, a first step on the road to creating the next generation of South African theatre performances.

UHM runs at the Artscape Arena from 3 - 13 December 2014 and bookings can be made through Computicket.

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From This Author David Fick