It’s a knockout – King Kong

In 1959 musical theatre history in South Africa was made when King Kong, an “all African jazz opera”, opened at the Witwatersrand University Great Hall. The then young Nelson Mandela was in the opening night multi-racial audience.  The music and some of the lyrics were written by Todd Matshikiza, with the rest of the lyrics being written by Pat Williams.  The book was by Harry Bloom.  It featured an exclusively black cast and starred, inter alia, Kippie Moeketsi, Hugh Masekela, Jonas Gwangwa, Thandi Klaasen and Miriam Makeba.

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Nearly sixty years later, King Kong, Legend of a Boxer, has been refreshed (with supplemental musical numbers and script changes) for today’s audiences by Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and playwright, William Nicholson.  The 2017 production is slick and while it clearly respects its historical origins, it also resonates with 21st century audiences.

King Kong, directed by Jonathan Munby, is vibrant and polished and the triple threat talents of singing, acting and dancing are made to look easy (they are not) by the super talented and incredibly disciplined cast which stars Andile Gumbi as King Kong, Nondumiso Tembe as Joyce, shebeen queen and owner of Back of the Moon, Sanda Shandu as Lucky (a totsi), Tshamano Sebe as Jack, the boxing coach, Ntambo Rapatla as Nurse Miriam, Sne Dladla as Popcorn, and Lerato Mvelase as the starstruck Petal, plus an ensemble cast that falls far short of the 72 in the original production.

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Andile Gumbi is good looking with an athlete’s build and he makes for a very credible heavyweight boxer.  Nondumiso Tembe is slim, graceful and moves exceptionally well.  Both of them have beautiful voices and clear diction and together they form a formidable team which is backed up by other excellent thespians, all of whom contribute to the energetic pace and lively vibe of the production. The four schoolboys are played by Athenkosi Mfamela, Shalom Zamisa, Sibusiso Mxosana and Aphiwe Menziwa.  At one point the three female characters – Joyce, Petal and Miriam – appear together in one of the most powerful and moving trios I have ever experienced, and one is able to reflect on their characters as they work through their respective experiences.


Nondumiso Tembe as Joyce

The script and lyrics switch between English and the vernacular, but even without any knowledge of the vernacular the audience is able to follow the plot without any difficulty.  This conveys an authenticity to the work which is familiar to all South Africans accustomed to the mixing of languages in everyday life.

The choreography is by the internationally renowned Gregory Maqoma. The dance numbers are era correct in their township kwela flavour, with fifties and sixties dance styles.  There is also a brief foray into Zulu traditional dance which thrilled the audience.  The fight scenes were splendid and credit is given both to boxing coach Chris Mugisho and to fight choreographer Richard Lothian.

Musical direction is by Charl-Johan Lingenfelder and Sipumzo Lucwaba, the latter being the conductor of the nine piece band as well as the bass player.  The band further comprises of Blake Hellaby on keys, Siphiwe Shiburi on drums, Billy Monama on guitar, Lwanda Gogwana and Joseph Kunnuji on trumpets, Zeke le Grange on tenor sax, William Hendricks on alto sax and clarinet, with Siya Makuzeni on trombone. Lingenfelder arranged Todd Matshikiza’s music, as well as creating several additional songs.  It is the original songs that one hums on the way home. “Back of the Moon” is one of the loveliest South African songs ever composed.

The magnificent set was created by Paul Wills with its rusted brown is evocative of townships, boxing rings, dusty streets, busy shebeens and a gymnasium.  It is cleverly constructed and as the shebeen opens out the audience gave an audible and collective gasp.  I loved the simple boxing ring.  Costume design by Birrie le Roux and I found them low key and entirely plausible as street wear of the day rather than the glitzy costumes of a musical production.  Lighting design is by Tim Mitchell who only blinded me once with lighting from the stage, but who captured the mood of the production superbly.  Sound design is by Mark Malherbe and I particularly found the sound of the lapping of water at the end so pathos filled that my eyes were temporarily affected by some form of allergy which made them water a bit.

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A very brief synopsis of the musical is the true story of a heavyweight boxer, Ezekiel Dlamini, born in Vryheid, Natal, in 1921 but who came to Johannesburg.  Dlamini had a great career as a pugilist before his life degenerated into one of drunkenness, petty crime and gang violence.  Eventually he knifed his girlfriend.  At his trial he requested that he be given the death penalty. He was sentenced to 12 years hard labour (the judge in the production hands down a life sentence and Wikipaedia confused the issue further by claiming it was a 14 year sentence) instead, and was found drowned (although one external source said his body was never recovered) two weeks later in April 1957.  It was believed that the former athlete had committed suicide.  This chilling story finds resonance with the millions of South Africans who have more recently watched Oscar Pistorius, another famed and feted athlete, on trial for murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp.  It shows a long and chilling history of femicide in South Africa that cuts across both time and racial lines.  The story of OJ Simpson and Nicole Brown indicates that this extends across borders too.  It is not a problem unique to South Africa.  The real name of the woman who was murdered by Ezekiel “King Kong” Dlamini was Maria Miya.

The tragic love story of King Kong and Joyce is softened in the musical by the secondary love story with Pop and Petal and Jack and Miriam marrying in a humorous scene which jarred slightly against the impending doom which the audience knows is coming. This is the single thing I disliked most about the production.

One of the more unusual things about the production is that both at the beginning and after interval there is “action” on stage and in the audience during the time that the audience is entering and settling.  The house lights remain on during this time and it involves the audience, drawing them into the unfolding scenes as curious onlookers.  I thought this worked very well, as evidenced where the penny whistle players did their bit with a collection hat and several audience members responded by putting money into the hat.   That was heart-warming.

Over all this is an excellent production and it is well worth seeing.

NOTE:  I attended the first preview performance of the work at the Joburg Theatre on 12 September 2017.

KING KONG runs at the Mandela Theatre in Johannesburg from 12 September – 8 October, running Tuesdays through Saturdays at 20:00 with 16:00 matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets range from R150 to R350 and are available through Webtickets.    

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Mamela Nyamza – Sunrise, sunset?

The title of the work is a play on words by choreographer Mamela Nyamza as she wrestles with the whole meaning of culture in PHUMA-LANGA, a dance work produced this September for Heritage Month.  “Phuma Langa” literally means “rise the sun”.

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PHUMA-LANGA, Mamela Nyamza’s residency work with The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative.

Mamela Nyamza a Cape Town based dancer/choreographer, has been the Standard Bank Artist of the Year for Dance in the past, and has a long list of awards and successful productions performed both at home in South Africa and abroad to her credit.  She has now joined forces in a residency with The Forgotten Angle Theatre Collaborative (FATC), based in the province of Mpumalanga, for this new thought-provoking production funded by the National Lotteries Commission.

I have a friend who speaks all eleven official languages of South Africa and several European ones as well.  He gently chides white people for their “lazy white tongues” when we mangle names and phrases from the vernaculars around us.  It is the mispronunciation of Mpumalanga (to “Maphumalanga”) that Nyamza homes in on as she explores the foreign-to-her Ndebele culture as a microcosm of what is happening all over South Africa – the disappearance and revival of language, art and culture – which she believes can go a long way to creating peace, harmony and stability in South Africa.

Thulani “Lathish” Mgidi, was one of the main sources of information about the Ndebele culture for Nyamza’s endless questions.  He assisted her with the traditional choreographic language of Ndabele traditional dance, but each of the dancers in the work, Nicholas Aphane, Shawn Mothupi, Lorin Sookool, Thulani ‘Lathish’ Mgidi, Nomfundo Hlongwa and Francesca Matthys, contributed to its being. The costumes and design by Sasha Ehlers are singled out by Nyamza as being based on the Ndebele visual art made famous by Esther Mahlangu.

PHUMA-LANGA offers no solutions.  It is simply a questioning of our current race relations, intolerance, moral fibre, political will and the rampant corruption we face.  There is a serious need for renewed reconciliation and reconstruction of the country’s collective soul.

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War imagery as we question whether we are at war with our cultures, languages, and art.

Nyamza intends that audiences take home with them thoughts of a country at war with its own cultures, traditions, languages and history as we explore for ourselves the divisions and reconciliations we face every day.  We are asked to examine for ourselves if this truly is a sunrise or is it a sunset?

PHUMA-LANGA will be performed at the Drama for Life Emakaya Theatre above the Wits Art Museum on the 19th Floor, University Building, in Braamfontein on 14, 15 and 16 September 2017.  Tickets are R60 at the door, but booking is advised.


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International Ballet Gala

When young dancers from around the world gather in South Africa to perform there is always a sense of occasion.

The International Ballet Gala in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Ballet in the Bush … well, in the bush (Limpopo) recently thrilled ballet audiences.

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Russian dancers Maria Rudenko and Artemiy Pyzhov in Le Corsaire Pas d’esclave

These young dancers also conducted workshops in four provinces and the Ballet in the Bush is all about rhino conservation and awareness.

I attended the performance at the Mosaiek Teatro, Fairland, the first time I have been at this venue.  It will probably never become a favourite venue because it is almost a semi-circle which has some dreadful sightlines from the sides and it lacks intimacy.  It is more an auditorium than a theatre.  The fact that the houselights were left on for most of the first half of the programme also indicates that this venue is not usually used as a conventional theatre.   The  hospitality for the venue is in another building and all round it lacks the correct ambience for theatre.

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Angela Malan and Dzianis Klimuk in Swan Lake Act II

The dancing was the usual mix of classical and neo-classical and contemporary ballet.

Adele Blank choreographed a new work to a synopsis by Dirk Badenhorst entitled Bengingazi, but the synopsis did not appear anywhere in the programme (unless I missed it with my now reduced vision).  The work itself, however, was sufficiently self-explanatory for us to see the competition between hip hop dancers and ballet dancers.  I was a little disappointed that the hip hop wasn’t more flashy and street like because I have seen some really beautiful dancing from hip hop artists.  Over all it was an interesting work and I would like to see it again in the future.  This was performed by Angela Malan, Andile Ndlovu, Javier Monier and Thami Njoko.

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Angela Malan and Andile Ndlovu in Bengingazi, choreographed by Adele Blank.

Another contemporary piece which I loved was Affray, performed by Miguel Kenneth Franco=Green and Navin Jacobs, both very young dancers.  Judging by the enthusiastic applause they received, I wasn’t the only one who liked the work.

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Young dancers, Miguel Kenneth Franco Green and Navin Jacobs in Affray

Anujin Otgontugs,  Javier Monier and Andile Ndlovu opened the Gala with the Le Corsaire Pas de Trois, but they were possibly nervous, because when Otgontugs and Monier performed the Flames of Paris Pas de Deux, they were much more relaxed and the dancing was considerably better than in the first piece.

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Anujin Otgontugs and Andile Ndlovu in the Le Corsaire Pas de Trois.

Paige McElligott performed the technically very difficult Allegro Vivace, and Michaela Fairon the Harlequinade.  Other soloists were Nehanda Peguillan in the La Bayaydere Gamzatti Variation, and Michaela Louw in La Fille mal Gardee.

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Paige McElligott in the technically difficult Allegro Vivace

Maria Rudenko and Artemiy Pyzhov  from Russia performed two numbers, Melody and the Le Corsaire Pad d’esclave. Both are exquisite dancers.  Lissi Baez and Jonhal Fernandez from Cuba were marvellous in the Don Quixote Pas de Deux.

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Cuban dancers Lissi Baez and Jonhal Fernandez in Don Quixote Pas de Deux

Of course, for me the highlight of the evening was Angela Malan and Dzianis Klimuk in Act II of Swan Lake, together with a Corps de Ballet from various local schools.  The Corps de Ballet was so well rehearsed and disciplined, and their teachers can be really proud of how well they did.  Angela Malan who, at one stage won the Arts and Culture Award for the best dancer (across all genres) in South Africa, showed us exactly why such an award was justified.  She really is a lovely dancer.  What a privilege to have been able to see her perform again.

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Angela Malan, Dzianis Klimuk and Corps de Ballet in Swan Lake Act II

This really was a lovely evening.  Well done to Dirk Badenhorst and his team.

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Freud’s Last Session, a review

Freud’s Last Session is one of those plays which is founded on a supposed meeting of two historical people of opposing viewpoints.  In this case the protagonists are Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis.


Graham Hopkins as Freud (left) and Antony Coleman as Lewis (right) in Freud’s Last Session.

Freud considered religion a mass delusion and a group neurosis.  CS Lewis was an atheist converted to devout Christianity, a brand of which permeated even his non-theological writings.  His best known works are probably “The Chronicles of Narnia”.  “I want to learn why a man of your intellect, one who shared my convictions, could suddenly abandon truth and embrace an insidious lie,” Freud says to Lewis.

Playwright Mark St. Germain sets the meeting in Freud’s London home at the start of World War II (Actually 3 September 1939 making this an anniversary production). The South African version, produced by Daphne Kuhn of the Auto & General Theatre on the Square, and directed with a very deft hand by Alan Swerdlow, the play that ran on off-Broadway for two years, is certainly entertaining South African audiences. Professor CS Lewis, the 40 year old Oxford don, is played by Antony Coleman, and he arrives late for the meeting because trains are being commandeered to take people, particularly children, out of London, while Sigmund Freud, a refugee from Hitler’s anti-semitism, is played by Graham Hopkins.  Both give sterling performances, particularly Graham Hopkins who plays the 83 year old father of psychoanalysis, now dying, in great pain, of oral cancer.  The prosthesis in his mouth rubs and makes Freud bleed when he talks although he admits that not talking would be more difficult for him. All round, the script fleshes Freud out more thoroughly than Lewis and it shows in the portrayals. It is Freud’s name in the title, Freud’s home in the set and Freud’s play in the theatre, although both characters have their moments of fear and flashbacks to more horrible times in their lives.

Denis Hutchinson designed the set, a book-lined study (supposedly a replica made by Freud’s daughter, Anna, of Freud’s Austrian study) and lighting and there are some excellent sound effects including planes flying low overhead and war sirens by Dean Pitman of Raintree.

The philosophical debate between people of faith and people of purely secular beliefs (or “The Question of God” as some phrase it) is always interesting. It always rightly questions the construct of a good God allowing bad things to happen to good people.  Right and wrong.  Evil and good.  Freud asks if Poland should turn the other cheek? Lewis turns the tables on Freud when he says “The wish that God doesn’t exist can be just as powerful as the belief he does.” The script teases it out somewhat, adding the possibility of self-administered euthanasia by Freud together with the questions around Freud’s Jewish identity as slight complications to the plot.  One neither expects, nor gets, resolution of the matter.  They fight it out to a draw. The script is not unrelieved academic posturing, there is some delightful humour buried in amongst the more thought provoking stuff.  One will not come away feeling as if there was an attempt to convert one to any particular way of thinking.  One such gem is where Lewis uses his literary critical skills to point out that the Gospels can’t be works of fiction because they’re so poorly constructed as works of fiction.

The work is 80 minutes long, but feels shorter.  The ideas simmer in the mind long after one leaves the theatre.  It’s men, not God, not Lucifer, who created prisons, slavery, bombs.  Man’s suffering is the fault of man “ says Lewis.  Freud counters with “Is that your excuse for pain and suffering?”  Science and religion, sex and authority all fade away as King George VI has the play’s last, ironic, word over the radio when he tells the British people that they will prevail over Germany “with God’s help”.

One of the performances, on 7 September 2017, is dedicated to raising funds for actor Robert Fridjohn who has had a stroke and needs the money for rehabilitation.  You can still donate to the fund by contacting the Auto & General Theatre on the Square and getting their bank details to do so.

Freud’s Last Session plays at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square in Sandton until 17 September 2017.  After that The Old Man & the Sea interpreted by Jenine Collocott (creator and director) and starring James Cairns and Tarry Bennet, will take to the boards.

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9/11 disappoints

A flashback to 11 September 2001 and my then boss had just boarded a plane for the USA.  I was living in Swaziland.  The news was full of the terrorist attack/disaster in both Washington and New York, together with the shutdown of all American air traffic.  Turns out my boss was diverted to Canada where she spent a few days enjoying Canadian hospitality before being rerouted to Barbados which was her final destination.  Most of us remember the day when the Twin Towers (the World Trade Centre) came crashing down with awful clarity, and the television footage of the disaster is now iconic.  It certainly impacted on the world as we knew it.

Charlie Sheen

Charlie Sheen in 9/11

Sixteen years later to the week the movie 9/11 directed by Martin Guigui will be released in both the USA and around the world (on 8 September in South Africa).  9/11 is based on an award winning stage play, Elevator, by Patrick Carson, and it tells the story of six people, five of whom are trapped in an elevator in the North Tower, and one of whom is a security worker in the building and their respective fates in this most memorable terrorist attack.

The story is not a particularly engaging one to anyone who knows the facts, so it becomes imperative that the audience cares about the characters in the building and particularly those in the elevator.  The humanisation or personalisation of people involved provides an opportunity to reflect how it was for the people trapped in the building, and perhaps event to reflect on how we might have felt in the same situation. However, I never particularly cared about the characters as individuals and this may be the single biggest weakness of the movie.

The movie begins with the home situations of the characters in an attempt to get the viewers to establish a bond with the characters.  Wood Harris as Michael, a bicycle messenger, sings “Happy birthday” to his young daughter.  A billionaire, Jeffrey Cage (Charlie Sheen) and his wife, Eve (Gina Gershon), are in the process of divorce negotiations in an office in the World Trade Centre.  Eddie (Luis Guzman), a maintenance man in the building is on his way to attend to a plumbing issue on the 42nd floor, while a young Russian girl, Tina (Olga Fonda) talks to her cat about freedom and starting a new life.  Metzie (Whoopi Goldberg) is one of the security officers in the building and her function is to monitor the situation in the building, including what happens in the elevators.

There is a sense of the macabre in watching this movie.  Almost as if one is gawking at the tragedy of the lives lost in that shocking, tragic event, much like people slowing down to determine what happened at the scene of an accident.  It is human nature to want to know, even if the story itself falls short of thrilling action.  At times I felt it was disrespectful to the memory of those who died there that day, particularly at the end when the involvement of a firefighter reminded us of those who made the ultimate sacrifice in their service to their city, country and fellow human beings.

If a lack of truly plausible characters is the movie’s greatest weakness, the most irritating thing about the movie is its ending.  It is an abrupt and inconclusive cut to black which is very unsatisfying and quite disturbing, and it left me both annoyed and needing resolution.

I am not sure this is a movie that adds anything to what is already available for one’s edutainment about the event.  It is simply too shallow, too facile, to touch one very deeply (oh, I did have a moment where the tears ran down my face, but I cry easily).  While I think that the movie stops short of actually being offensive to the victims and survivors of 9/11, it also falls short of creating characters which can become the face of the disaster for us to remember for a lifetime.

Many of the people who see the movie will be too young to have personal recollections of the events of  9/11.  They will draw their own conclusions of the events based on what they see in this movie.  Many of them will come away without enlightenment, and more importantly, without empathy for the innocent people caught up in that horrible day’s events.  That’s a whole new tragedy.

I enjoyed the movie on a superficial level and I give this movie a mediocre 6/10.

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Don’t burn your sausage

Chris Forrest, comedian, and celebrity chef, Pete Goffe-Wood,  join forces to “scrumptiously blend comedy and cooking together in Don’t Burn Your Sausage.”

This “ingenious live show is deliciously funny and rather ‘whisk-qué” and the pair show us how food and sex are “delectably intertwined”.

“Forrest and Goffe-Wood prepare the ultimate seductive 3-course meal with a naughty line-up of ‘Foreplay’, ‘Intercourse’ and ‘Afterglow’ that will have you salivating salaciously and crying with laughter.”

Three nights only.  From the 22nd to the 24th September at the Red Roman Shed at Emperors Palace.

Tickets are from R150 each and are available through the new ticketing system, (click the Tickets tab on their Facebook page to make the booking).  Don’t Burn Your Sausage starts at 8PM at the Red Roman Shed at Emperors Palace (64 Jones Road, Kempton Park) for three-nights only (22 – 24 September).  Ticket price does not include food.

Chris Forrest

Chris Forrest and Peter Goffe-Wood

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South African International Ballet Competition Gala in Joburg on 7 September 2017


Maria Rudenko with Artemiy Pyzhov

Dirk Badenhorst, founder and CEO of the South African International Ballet Competition held in Cape Town every second year, is hosting a Gala performance of classical and neo classical works performed by leading professional dancers from South Africa, Russia, Spain, Mongolia, Armenia, USA, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt and Mexico.

Fans of South African dancers, Angela Malan and Andile Ndlovu (from Washington Ballet), will be delighted to see them performing again.  Russian ballerina Maria Rudenko partnered by Artemiy Pyzhov, Monier Javier Jouve from Spain, Anujin Otgontugs from Mongolia, Hassan Eltabie from Egypt, Mariam Karapetyan from Armenia, Jonhal Fernandez from Mexico, Lissi Baez from Cuba, and Dzianis Klimuk from Belarus.

Dirk Badenhorst coined the term “Ballet Diplomacy”, and now, working with SA Tourism, “Ballet Tourism”, with these outstanding dancers becoming unofficial, but enthusiastic, ambassadors for South Africa.

The International Ballet Gala takes place as follows:

  • Mountain Cambridge School in Hartebeespoort on 5 September at 7pm;
  • Mosaiek Teatro in Fairland on 7 September at 8pm;
  • Legend Golf and Safari Resort in Limpopo –Ballet in the Bush – on 9 September at 7pm.

Tickets for performances at Artscape (this weekend) and the Mosaiek Theatres are through Computicket and cost from R120 – R395.

For tickets (& workshop info) in Hartebeespoort call Dirk Badenhorst on 0833240940, and for Ballet in the Bush at Legends email or call 0124436700. (please note repertoire is subject to change).


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