Making something out of nothing
Lesley Stones: An artist developing a new piece of theatre can rework it and hone it endlessly on paper or in workshops.
But it’s not until they try it in front of an audience that it really gels and reveals its strengths and weaknesses.
Johannesburg’s Centre for the Less Good Idea is a space where developing or experimental works can be aired for an audience that knows not to expect perfection.
It’s based in the Maboneng district, but it’s a dark walk away from the main hub and right now people are still wary. Of the virus, of the reported decline of Maboneng and even of venturing out again at night after months of growing accustomed to staying at home. Perhaps there’s also the feeling that if you’re going out spending money you want to be sure you’re in for something good.
Which all explains why Pretoria-based writer, choreographer and performer Thabo Rapoo had only about 20 people in his audience for Thupa Kobong – The Repress of ‘Nothing’. Rapoo has created – or is creating – an odd piece in English and Setswana where he cries to the spirit of Motsamai, a homeless man who realises that he will only amount to nothing, no thing, in his lifetime.
He begins by shaking a cup attached to a stick in front of individual audience members, with his expressive hangdog face cajoling us into donating a coin or two. He’s wearing a battered jacket with holes in and a gash down the back, over a ragged shirt and trousers. The pace is slow, but when you make eye contact with him, time seems to stop completely.
This is a performance, not a play, taking place against an aural backdrop of grunts that are sometimes a little too loud to hear the few words that Rapoo is saying. Much of his communication is through raw guttural cries as he expresses his fear or grief or madness. When he speaks he does so with a rich and dignified enunciation redolent of South Africa’s great actor John Kani. He’s also a brilliant whistler of ear-piercing intensity, and able to have an entire whistled ‘conversation’ with some blankets dangling from the ceiling.
A few snippets of the Constitution, religious texts and proverbs are projected onto the bare wall behind him. “Everyone has the right to dignity and to have their dignity respected,” reads one. Another says only the shadows can hear her cry as Rapoo’s spoken words suggest that women lose a part of themselves when they become the wife or chattel of a man.
He’s intense with his actions, down to a twitching hand and dribbling saliva as he grunts and repeats the name Motsamai. The emotion is high but the plot is minimal, and director Phala O. Phala could have shortened some sections to heighten the intensity and retain audience interest.
Despite some repetitive periods I found myself quite transfixed as Rapoo struggled with his demons or his hopelessness. Then my mind wandered off, and I questioned whether I was mainly enjoying the event because I was back in the happy space of the theatre with a heartening glass of wine inside me.
Other people might see different symbolism in this piece, but for me, presenting the beggar as a spectacle feels like those township tours that are sometimes condemned as sightseeing on the back of poverty, rather than hailed for giving the guides an income and highlighting projects within the communities. Maybe this production will remind people that the homeless aren’t a homogenous group to avoid, but individuals with their own struggles.
The Centre for the Less Good Idea was founded by William Kentridge in 2016 to nurture artists and support experimental, collaborative and cross-disciplinary endeavours, and as a safe space for projects to be tried and discarded if they don’t work. “Often, you start with a good idea. It might seem crystal clear at first, but when you put it to work the cracks and fissures emerge in its surface, and they cannot be ignored. It is often the secondary ideas, those less good ideas found in trying to address the cracks in the first idea, that become the core of the work,” Kentridge explained.
As part of the Centre’s ‘For Once’ programme, Thupa Kobong – The Repress of ‘Nothing’ is slated to return for a longer run after this initial trial. This exploratory piece will need some honing before it could appeal to a broader audience, and it may always be the stuff of festivals or one-off performances. Rapoo carries it with his magnetic stage presence, but it cries out for less grunting and more solidification of the good ideas bubbling through.
The Centre for the Less Good Idea is at Arts on Main at 264 Fox Street, Maboneng, Johannesburg.
For details of upcoming shows, see www.lessgoodidea.com.
Lesley Stones is the 2016 Arts Journalism Awards winner in the reviews category, presented by the National Arts Festival and Business & Arts SA.
This former Brit is now proudly South African. She started her career by reviewing rock bands for a national UK music paper, then worked for various newspapers before spending four fun-filled years in Cairo, where she ended up editing a technology magazine.
She was the Information Technology Editor for Business Day for 12 years before quitting to go freelance, specialising in travel & leisure writing and being opinionated about life in general. Her absolute passions are travel, theatre, the cinema, wining and dining.
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