Loose ends

Superficial SupremacyIt’s been ten days since the tenth Amsterdam Fringe took a deep, well deserved bow for 2015, leaving us with throbbing heads and crazy grins. And we’re a day away from embarking on the second Cape Town Fringe yet I still haven’t tied up a few loose ends.

That it’s taken me this long to pull myself back together is either an indication of how exhaustingly enjoyable Amsterdam Fringe was, or how long I mull over shit before putting fingers to keyboard, or an indication of how good the surf has been since I got back. Take your pick, mix ‘n match.

There were quite a few shows I saw in that beautiful city of canals and bicycles which I didn’t get the time to write about (see above) but which deserve to have some reflection floating around on the interwebs and besides, I did tell a couple of theatre makers who were so kind as to offer me coffee at the producer’s brunch that I would try string some words together.

So here goes opening my mental notebook:

Superficial Supremacy
I saw this on the second day of arrival in Amsterdam and think I hadn’t quite managed to switch my mind over to Dutch theatre, which is generally more eclectic in form than the more narrative theatre we’re used to South Africa, thus unfortunately I think I didn’t give it the heft it deserved.

Obtusely cynical, Superficial Supremacy parodies the way celebrity obsessed rags, tabloids and that scourge of the modern world – television – drink in female sexuality and then spray it across our faces as if it were Champagne jizz on a New Year’s Eve that repeats 365 times a year.

Look at how excited television stations, newspapers and magazines got when Miley Cyrus bent over and shook her ass in Robin Thicke’s groin at the celebration of mediocrity that was the MTV VMA’s. They came all over themselves. There were probably hundreds of network executives with stains on the front of their pants for a week as they spurted the footage across their channels and then clutched themselves in pleasure as mindless millions ensured their spawn was spread ever further around the globe via social media. Miley is but one example among thousands that form grist to the populist media mill.

Creator and director Kira Kool highlights and subverts this strange perversion where women are not only objectified, but play an active part in their objectification.

Within a square formed by the performers – dressed in black plether bodices fringed with pink plastic – who sit at sewing machines while men Maarten Zaagman (muscian) and Jan Esperer (composer) sit at the back in full controlling view of the action like masters of the stage, Kool, who is also one of the six female performers, stages an absurd musical.

The sewing machines, which are intermittently used as intruments to create an Esperer’s soundtrack, underscore both the domestic position a patriarchal society imposes on women (women sew, men tailor), and highlight the vacuity of their ambition to be perceived as sexual objects rather than as people with purpose and self-regard.

I initially found the over-emphasised American accents and catwalk strutting to be overstating the work’s intentions as the sexualisation of women is global, even if it arguably has its seat of power in the US, and thus unnecessary. But on reflection it plays into parody and heightens the absurdity of how empty of meaning life, if viewed through the lenses certain media appear to wish us to look through, has become.

There is also a wonderfully subtle underplay that occurs as one performer, who appears to be cast as younger sister or, at least, an ingénue, slowly and silently transforms herself throughout the play from beautiful innocent to affected sophisticate.

In a scathing critique of contemporary society’s shallow obsession with sexual attractiveness, we see the performer’s beauty, built on the fragile foundation of the admiring male gaze, break down with devastating consequences.

Performers on the programme were: Anne Freriks, Robin Kuiper, Rosine Langbroek, Zoï Duister and Léa Vinette.

Watching, Ceci n’est pas de deux
Puppetry needs to be of a high order for a work not to come across as amateur, there’s very little middle ground, and I think that is because a puppet sets a greater hurdle for our imagination, the suspension of disbelief is one order of magnitude higher.

Ester Natzijl succeeds in moving us into subliminal territory as she dances with her Gollum-like puppet in Watching.

The life-size foam puppet which she approaches, embraces, rejects and embraces again before embarking on a dance in which who is in control and who is being controlled, appears to symbolise one’s fears, or the shadow side we all harbour.

Natzijl is a lithe and graceful dancer and has mastered the use of her puppet to the extent that it has a personality of its own. It shudders, it winks, it grimaces, it smirks, it becomes very real, so much so that at one point it is Natzijl who is the puppet and the puppet the living being.
It just takes rather awhile to get to the point where we are engrossed in the tranformation we are seeing.

There’s too much of that initial approach and rejection and reapproach. And the lighting in that prelude is terrible, we can barely see Natzijl or the puppet. And besides, no-one deals with their shadow unless forced to it through crisis. So this seemingly voluntary approach is nonsensical, and it tells. What Natzijl does eventually place before us is a person in crisis, wrestling with her dark side, yet we get to it as if it was the character’s conscious choice, which is more unrealistic than any puppet ever was.

As a director I chatted to about this work said: “Just hit us with it. Bam! Surprise us.” Rather, what Natzijl does is play to her strengths: beauty and grace. That’s just playing safe, which is the one weakness (besides lighting) in this work. Get ugly.

A Tony Award Winning Performance
Really liked this concept: the performers are cast in a futuristic game show run by a new autocrat who is looking for the new Adams and Eves to populate his Utopia. The autocrat, represented by a disembodied voice, is called Tony.

Performers Freek den Hartogh and Nadia van Vuuren were great. Especially van Vuuren. I was rooting for them, I wanted them to win, I wanted their utopian dream to come true. Their anxiety was palpable (although possibly a little overacted at times) and their love for each other was charming.

The sense of foreboding was pitched just right, at a sort of Hunger Games level, as I alternated between believing in the possibility of a utopia and fearing its descent into corruption and control.

The main fault in this work, directed and conceived by Marijke de Kerf, was pace, which was achingly slow at times, particularly the scene in which den Hartogh is hypnotised to believe he is a mouse.

Mostly, it was den Hartogh and van Vuuren’s charisma and presence that managed to carry the play.

Okay, Amsterdam, I got to get off my bike and dive into the 11 days of performance in my hometown, the Cape Town Fringe.

Bring it on.

— Steve Kretzmann

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