Profile: Castaways – Hitting the sweet spot

When the gasp-inducing acrobatics of the circus meets the comedy of clowning and the narrative drama of theatre, it is possible to get a show that hits all the sweet spots. A show such as Castaways. Appearing on the National Arts Festival’s biggest stage – the Guy Butler auditorium – Castaways has children cheering and adults spontaneously clapping between spells of quiet absorption as a shipwrecked crew of five endure the dangers and vicissitudes of being stuck on a raft.

There’s the shamefaced captain, the glamorous showgirl, her long-suffering assistant, the deckhand, and the bride still in her wedding dress. Whether the ship sank before or after the wedding ceremony is left open to question.

Also open to question, and a source of hilarity, is that not one of the five speak the same language, leading to a plethora of misunderstandings and crossed wires until the shared experience leads them all to common ground, in the metaphorical sense. And in between the story of how they will weather (ahem) their misfortune, are dramatic acrobatic interludes involving suspended hoops, silks, pole work, awesome tumbling, and situations in which the performers put their lives in each other’s hands. 

The work offers a few serious passages, if you stop to delve into them, such as what it might be like to die of thirst or starvation while floating about in the middle of the ocean, but is light-hearted overall and there is nothing to give your laaities nightmares. The only danger you run as a parent is that your progeny might want to go off to the circus, which is not the worst thing, judging by this cast and crew. 

After all, Daniel Buckland, who brought us last year’s hit Urban Circus, directs this theatrical spectacle, ran off to the circus. Cirque du Soleil, specifically, and now works with The Cirk in Joburg, which collaborated in this production. 

Daniel’s experience is partly why Castaways is such a success; he knows what he’s doing, and having been taught by some of South Africa’s best theatremakers, knows what is needed. 

Originally, he intended to delve into the darkness the crisis of shipwreck invites. He was inspired by walking past the cellphone wielding hordes in front of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre and was blown away by the massive Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault, a remarkable painting of death, despair, and hope. And Castaways touches on deep themes such as migration, identity, and denial but, as Daniel points out, it is despair that allows for humour. Without the dark, we can’t have the light.

A major part of the fantastic set, the raft, had a lot to say about what could and could not be done, offered opportunities and limitations, says Daniel. There’s also the ensemble in which everyone brings their own particular strength, whether it be acrobatic work or acting.

“In rehearsal the raft tells you what it wants to do and the cast tells you, and often we’d find a lighter flip and the silliness of things. Initially I fought against it but then grasped it and leant into the chorus of acrobatics.” 

That there is no recognisable language spoken means the communication – between characters and with the audience – is physically driven. Having been taught by physical theatre maestro Gary Gordon, and by his own father, the masterful mime and clown Andrew Buckland, Daniel is able to nurture these elements to their full expression in this piece to create a wonderful romp that has just the right amount of comedy and concern packaged with the spectacle a festival needs.

Details and bookings here.

Castaways is directed by Daniel Buckland, produced by Michelle Vok and Maude Sandham, choreographed by Orlando Vargas, lit by Joshua Cutts, with production design by Imile Wepener, and safety and rigging by Richard Lievaart.

Performers are: Elisha Mudly (bride), William Harding (captain), Charles Malama (Sailor), Claudia Moruzzi (Diva), Kimona Moodley (Assistant).

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