You need no history, theology or advanced philosophy to understand Couplet. Even children can access it. However …
During the 15th century amidst the recurrent bouts of Black Plague, the worlds of the church and the theatre colluded to develop a theatrical style known as “morality theatre”. These were basically and stereotypically sermons dramatized through allegory. The usual theme was Mankind setting out on a Bunyon-like pilgrimage where he would encounter both vices and virtues. However stereotypical the subject matter may have been, they were aimed at an educated, middle-class audience, who were already moving towards secularisation. They formed the link between the medieval world of church cycle plays and the Reformation theatre of the likes of William Shakespeare.
Couplet is a play by Michelle Douglas, edited and directed by Stephen Feinstein, at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. It is created in the form of a morality play, tempered by later styles of entertainment including vaudeville, music, magical realism, puppetry, masks, fantasy and even circus performance as the work winds its way through the tale narrated by Michelle Douglas and Julie-Anne McDowell. It is essentially almost timeless in its setting, and it certainly defies easy placement into an historical context. This mix of genres and theatrical devices makes it a busy piece which is a visual spectacle of delight.
As the title suggests, Couplet is based on the iambic pentameter most of us learned about in English literature classes as school. Basically five sets of unstressed syllables followed by stressed syllables that typically rhyme. Each couplet makes up a complete thought. (If you have forgotten this, don’t feel lonely, I had to look it up).
The premise is that Fear and Doubt are the two characters. They have, like unwise parasites, killed their previous host, and they are now homeless and looking for their next “victim”. Their recollection of past hosts is told in sections, with back and forth movement through the stories, in a conversational style rather than an accurate narrative.
The play is suitable for older children, probably those of middle school going age (Grade 4 and up), and although some of the detail may be lost on them there is more than enough in the fable like stories for them to latch onto and interpret for themselves. There is none of the bawdiness of Chaucer, nor even of Shakespeare and one would be able to present it as a contemporary sermon in the most conservative of contemporary places of worship. Couplet comes into its own as theatre for adults, though, and the caveat is that there is no happy ending of this play. It simply disappears back into the timelessness in which it is created.
The work is beautifully created, using props by Lien van der Linde and Christelle van Graan (puppets and masks) and costumes by Sandy Muller to great effect as the whiney duo present the list of their successes, and at the end – in a delightful reference to Joan of Arc, their failures. The overall design is by Feinstein with Oliver Hauser doing the lighting and Rob Joseph created the set. Jahn Beukes was responsible for the tuneful and memorable music.
I encourage everyone to see this wonderful, cutting edge, theatrical work. It is a most interesting theatrical experience and it will leave you with a lot of food for thought.
“We’re presently homeless with nowhere to reside;
All the headspace has been taken with other thoughts inside …
Board and lodging’s scarce – we ask space for only two:
A room with a lavatory, doesn’t need a view …
We’re really not that fussy – we’re just 2 homeless thoughts
Looking for some space to live before we come to naught.
Couplet runs at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square, West Street, Sandton, until 28 October. Call 011 883-8606 or visit http://www.theatreonthesquare.co.za.