The Heart’s Hotel: Great service, shabby room

Toni Morkel and Liezel de Kock perform in Heart’s Hotel in Glennie Hall at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 7 July 2016. The show also featured shadow puppetry by Christelle van Graan. (Photo: CuePix/Gemma Middleton)

Toni Morkel and Liezel de Kock perform in Heart’s Hotel in Glennie Hall at the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 7 July 2016. Photo: CuePix/Gemma Middleton

Ag yissus but watching Liezl de Kock on stage is lekka. She can lift the most run-of-the-mill show to a level above the value of its script or staging. It’s got little to do with concepts of physical beauty. Actually, de Kock seems to have a habit of making herself unpretty, even grotesque, which was the case in her highly successful and disturbing Piet se Optelgoed. Nah, it’s not about her looks. It’s about the way she inhabits the stage. Light beams themselves seem to brighten in anticipation of illuminating her charisma.

She’s a supremely physical performer, her movement concise, clearly articulated, she barely needs to talk, and often doesn’t.

Toni Morkel is no faded star either. The air might not shimmer around her with quite the same exuberance but she has compelling body language of her own that complements de Kock’s vitality in The Heart’s Hotel.

The pair of them are directed by James Cunningham with Christelle van Graan taking care of the shadow puppetry, the sort of team that form a kind of safety net, you know you’ll be caught by their expertise and not have your expectations of a good hour of theatre left to fall on hard ground. Kinda like knowing you’ll get good service and clean linen when you book into a top star hotel.

Well, that safety net stretched a bit. The service in The Heart’s Hotel was great but the bed springs seem a bit worn and poke through the mattress here and there. Like a charming manager’s attention eases qualms and minor inconveniences, de Kock’s magnetism smoothed concerns over shallow narrative and threadbare solutions but like the dull backache caused by a cheap mattress, a slight discomfort continues to be a bother after waving fond farewells to the maitre d’hotel.

This is all to say that this was actually a rather run-of-the-mill show saved predominantly by de Kock’s stage presence with Morkel as worthy foil.

The scruffy black almost medieval peasant costumes are great, as is the multifunctional paper set and paper child puppet who is the third character in the cast. What let it down was a narrative with little depth, or, if it had depth (the story was somewhat obtuse), it wasn’t realised through its telling. The shadow puppetry was another detraction. Used in tandem with narration to deliver the storyline in what was largely an otherwise mute performance, it felt like too much of an easy way out for these theatremakers. The images were attractive but  weren’t particularly well executed in this first rendition and the prettiness of the images gave the work a candy-coating that was at odds with an otherwise rather dark aesthetic, a conflict in effect that did not work in this play’s favour. There must be another visual option that can be used to deliver the narrative thrust. Developing a more suitable alternative may well be more difficult to construct but theatremakers of this calibre might do well to take on the challenge and create a greater provocation among their audience.

After all, it was the fascinating provocation of Piet se Optelgoed that got de Kock into the Arena at this year’s National Arts Festival but this new work falls back on old devices rather than pushing into new territory.

The result of this retreat into established technique, which at times bordered on the hackneyed, placed before us a play that was entertaining and easy on the eye but unable to evoke any sincere emotional engagement. Watching de Kock is a pleasure but I was expecting more. I’ll keep waiting, and watching.

The Heart’s Hotel is on twice tomorrow and once on Saturday. Programme notes and booking here.

— Steve Kretzmann

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