Wilhelm van der Walt and Jemma Kahn. Photo: Jaco B van Schalkwyk
The director of a mediocre musical designed to entertain rather than challenge its audience berates the actors during rehearsal. A little dictator of the stage, he lashes them for small lapses with highly personal insults. And they take it, apologise and play the line again, which leads to new insults. And again and again, the actors little more than slaves to some higher cause which is the perfection of the middling musical.
Why do they allow him to get away with it, asks Leo Tolstoy in the early chapters of his treatise What Is Art?
Tolstoy’s observation leads him to muse on whether the performers are willing to endure this torment because they believe art is more important than their dignity, their selves.
It’s also a central question in Jemma Kahn’s The Borrow Pit, which, for the first time in quite a while, delivers the Standard Bank Young Artist for theatre goods at the fest premier. Which is not to diminish the abilities of the winners over the past few years, its just that the funding available for the SBYA production can be a bit of a poisoned chalice. After being able to take chances in the semi-vacuum of performing arts interrogation in SA, suddenly the pressure’s on and everyone’s looking.
Part of the reason Kahn succeeds is she’s continued on a path that has led to critical and artistic success, and used the SBYA to expand a winning ticket, which is smart. That would be her use of kamishibai, a storytelling technique using a series of pictures to illustrate the plot. She’s expanded her usual cast of two including herself, to four, wisely choosing to work with fantastic actors Tony Miyambo, David Viviers and Wilhem van der Walt, who was particularly excellent as the boorish George Dyer, painter Francis Bacon’s muse. Miyambo plays the extravagant Bacon with apparent ease, and Viviers is deliciously reserved as painter Lucien Freud. There are other characters, played by Kahn, with the pompous Pablo Picasso brilliantly played by a striped sock.
Kahn plays fast and loose with the facts surrounding these, and some other 20th Century figures, to create a work that mixes genres (and visual arts mediums) as much as it does history. It is as absurd as Picasso, Sigmund Freud, Nietzsche, Charles Darwin, Lucien and Francis meeting in a gentleman’s club in Nazi-occupied Paris in 1942. And just as wonderful, even if it did start off a bit unsure of how it was going to be played. At first it seemed the kamishibai was going to dominate, with the actors merely representations, but, thankfully, once the extras had left the scene, everyone allowed their skill at inhabiting character move to the fore, not losing them either as they fiddled with the kamishibai screens holding the stack of images that get drawn out one by one.
It did drag at places, particularly toward the end when matters deteriorate (don’t they always, when it comes to successful artists) and people get morose, which will surely get sorted out as the work settles. There is no stipulation that SBYA shows have to be 90 minutes, is there?
Having won acclaim for her kamishibai trilogy The Epicene Butcher, We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, and In Bocca al Lupo, she has made the form her own, and now plays as loose with it as with her facts.
And if you want to know whether art is more important than people, the answer is yes, particularly if you’re an artist. Maybe not so much if you’re a muse.
The Borrow Pit is on at the Rhodes Box at 14:00 and 20:00 today and tomorrow. Book HERE.