When is a door not a door? In the case of Ndebele Funeral, Zoe Martinson's new play for the New York based Smoke and Mirrors Collaborative company it's when it's a coffin. Set in the Soweto townships which huge swathes of South Africa's black community still call home, a city sickness hangs heavy over Thandi's shack, where she is woken from her slumber, first by a government inspector looking into how she has used the wood allocated to improve her housing situation, then by old college friend Mandisi, whose enthusiasm for twenty-first century pop culture fails to bring Thandi back to being the woman she was before her self-imposed exile.
With Martinson herself playing Thandi, Awoye Timpo's production of her play exposes a loss of faith, not just in Mandisi's sullied devotion to something higher, but more devastatingly in Thandi's wilful self-destruction that is her last gasp for autonomy in her poverty-stricken existence. With the naturalism of each scene broken up by ebullient bursts of South African song, gumboot dancing and out-front monologues, Martinson, Yusef Miller as Mandisi and Jonathan David Martin as the inspector reveal a moving but no less troubling portrait of a post apartheid South Africa where for some life is still very much on the edge
In Can I Start Again Please, two women sit formally side by side wearing frocks ornate enough to suggest they're about to give some polite parlour room recitation. With pages of text spread out on their laps like a musical score, on one level that's exactly what Sue MacLaine's fifty-five minute meditation on how words fail us becomes. As MacLaine and co-performer Nadia Nadarajah relate untranslatable quotes from Wittgenstein both in everyday English and in sign language with coded references to childhood sexual abuse peppered throughout, something darker and more philosophical emerges.
Part performance lecture, part unspoken interrogation of the audience and part purging, MacLaine's piece plays with form as much as content in a production overseen by Jonathan Burrows, described as an outside eye rather than a director. Provocations on what it means to be silent are punctuated by choreographed hand gestures or else Maclaine and Nadrajah ringing hand-bells that only one of them will hear. Wry intellectual gags are delivered in precise, deadpan tones. Even the lack of a question mark in the title seems to be a line of inquiry that goes beyond words to get to a stark and mesmeric dissection of actions that speak a whole lot louder.
When a girl with a magic heart meets a boy with stars in his eyes in Fable, the fact that they were brought together in a West of Scotland village by a dating app rather than fate suggests that opposites attracting in such a way might not quite work out. J is a would-be astronaut grounded by physical limits not of her making. Blair is a small-town boy who'll never get out of town if he's not careful, even though he's too careful by far. As it is, through a series of everyday epiphanies, each opens the other up to infinite possibilities, and they both learn how to soar.
The fact that The Flanagan Collective's lo-fi austerity age rom-com manages to go stratospheric using little more than looped guitar patterns played live by Jim Harbourne, who plays Blair, an old-school what-we-did-on-our-hols slideshow and a series of spoken-word style monologues from Veronica Hare as J makes Joe Hufton's production even more charming. There's something quietly anarchic about the show's call to arms to rise above hi-tech led consumer culture and to be everything you want to be. With Harbourne and Hare sparking off each other with a mix of dynamism and vulnerability, whatever the risks it seems to say, the possibilities are endless.
The Herald, August 13th 2015