Rough treat­ment for South African clas­sic

Play s coarse­ness leaves one feel­ing bru­talised, writes Robyn Sassen

Sunday Times - - OBITUARIES -

F you know the op­pres­sive con­fes­sion­ary na­ture of a women ’ s beauty sa­lon and were alive just be­fore South Africa be­came demo­cratic, you ’ ll ap­pre­ci­ate the harsh po­et­ics flung at the au­di­ence in this clas­sic play, which has been re­vived 25 years af­ter it set stages afire lo­cally and abroad.

But for some ut­terly mag­nif­i­cent con­tralto singing and jux­ta­po­si­tions of val­ues to make your head spin, this pro­duc­tion of Sue Pam-Grant’s play — which she de­signed and di­rected this time around — is rough and lacks nu­ance.

It’s 1989, Jou­bert Park. Ev­ery­thing stinks of state-ofe­mer­gency vi­o­lence. We’re in a down-at-heel sa­lon, with hair­dresser Ro­lene (Quanita Adams) and her domestic, Miriam (Hlengiwe LushabaMad­lala). The clien­tele com­prises lo­cal riffraff and res­i­dents: Char­maine (Cindy Swanepoel) is ad­dicted to Wel­conal, the hard­est drug on the streets of Jo­han­nes­burg at the time; Dudu (Lesedi JobSmith) is a nurs­ing sis­ter at Park Lane Clinic and fa­mil­iar with forced evic­tion. Mrs Du Bois (Robert Col­man) is a verkrampte care­taker in a “white ” block of flats, hold­ing so firmly to her po­lit­i­cal bi­ases that even her knuck­les show white.

Con­ver­sa­tion skit­ters around gos­sipy is­sues of the day against the back­ground of the hor­rors of abuse, evic­tions and in­jus­tice.

Ro­lene is cen­tral to the nar­ra­tive, but Adams ap­proaches the char­ac­ter with a heavy-hand­ed­ness that even­tu­ally be­comes dif­fi­cult to

Iwatch. Her per­sona mixes street smarts with a bravado that, but for one moment of ut­ter the­atri­cal beauty, is re­lent­lessly shrill.

Danc­ing on the knife edge of pass­ing for white in a so­ci­ety in which any­thing not white is con­sid­ered a gevaar, she’s trapped be­tween an abu­sive white part­ner and the ed­u­cated sym­pa­thy of a black nurs­ing sis­ter.

Char­maine, a help­less bit of white trash, is not de­void of em­pa­thy, but she is so messed up and self­ish that she doesn’t evoke sym­pa­thy. Coarse and harsh, she en­ters and ex­its the nar­ra­tive, her vi­o­lent need­i­ness stream­ing around her like an aura. Her pres­ence is a the­atri­cal de­vice to in­ter­rupt po­lit­i­cal di­a­logue with an ug­li­ness as ba­sic and rep­re­hen­si­ble as drug-in­duced vomit in a pub­lic place.

Mrs du Bois is a char­ac­ter writ­ten to hold a mir­ror to many white South Africans of the 1980s. In 2013 she’s an em­bar­rass­ing di­nosaur with cringe­wor­thy bias.

In Col­man’s hands, her re­al­ity oc­ca­sion­ally teeters over the top, but there are mo­ments when the char­ac­ter is so per­fect you would recog­nise her on the street.

The new cus­tomer, Dudu, brings a dig­nity of re­straint to the lat­ter part of the play, lend­ing the work the nu­ance it lacks in the first half. She comes into her own as the work ’ s tem­per­a­ture rises; you no­tice her in its eerie pro­logue, which presents the women as silent ghouls in night­dresses.

How­ever, it is the me­nial role of Miriam, as crafted and devel­oped in Lushaba-Madlala’s hands, that lifts the show. In a cou­ple of duets in word, chore­og­ra­phy and song, her char­ac­ter and that of Job-Smith soar with a grace that makes tears run down your cheeks.

Other than a moment of hor­ri­fy­ing re­al­i­sa­tion in which Adams ’ s voice be­comes a gruff, in­cred­u­lous sob, the play’s tone shouts across the cracked maroon 1980s swivel chairs of the sa­lon and into the au­di­ence like an as­sault.

The play is stripped of ar­ti­fice. Even hair­styles are mimed, a de­vice that is not con­sis­tently con­vinc­ing. In­stead of the kitchen-sink drama of the 1980s, the work has been cast in a Brechtian mould for this pro­duc­tion.

It is po­tently rein­vented with a rough sense of the sa­cred, but what you’re left with is per­plex­ing. Your head tires of the vi­o­lence. Your heart too.

Your at­ten­tion be­gins to wane, un­til the play’s de­noue­ment in which pol­i­tics and church song im­plode in a way that in­spires all around it.

This play is a must-see for Lushaba-Madlala ’ s abil­ity to lift and heal the space.

Pic­ture: RUPHIN COUDYZER

CON­FES­SIONS: Hlengiwe Lushaba-Madlala as Miriam, Robert Col­man as Mrs Du Bois, Cindy Swanepoel as Char­maine, Lesedi Job-Smith as Dudu and Quanita Adams as Ro­lene in Curl Up and Dye

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