Tobacco, and the Harmful Effects Thereof: Beautiful, beautiful Tobacco

Andrew Buckland in Tobacco, and the Harmful Effects Thereof. Photo: CuePix/Hlumela Mkabile

The man, weighed down with innumerable petty responsibilities, driven to madness through lack of affirmation, lack of love and a thousand daily darts of dismissal and scorn, is one we either despise or with whom we sympathise. Given that man is played by Andrew Buckland, it is the latter which holds sway.

The belittled man, chastened further by his acute awareness of his lack of masculinity, is not an uncommon literary character. The programme notes make this clear, mentioning inspiration from luminaries such as James Joyce, Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, among others. Iris Murdoch’s The Accidental Man and, to some extent, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim also spring to mind.

Buckland in On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, written by recent Wits graduate Will Harding with inspiration from the authors mentioned, borrows most heavily from Anton Chekov’s short On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco in which the character Ivan Ivanovitch Nyukhin gives a speech at a local town hall which proceeds on a number of personal tangents, ending in a nervous breakdown.

This is all very interesting, but doesn’t really matter as Buckland, who here reasserts himself as master of mime and physical comedy, so captures our attention from his first silent appearance on stage (with his prosthetic proboscis making him look remarkably like US film actor Christof Waltz) that any concerns as to originality are rendered academic.

Our stressed lecturer with the nervous eye and 20 children has been bullied into delivering the speech by his harridan of a wife, wonderfully played by Toni Morkel, whom he nonetheless loves and does his best to make happy. But the effort is impossible to the point of driving him over the edge.

Like Leo Tolstoy, who eventually left his wife Sonya when he was 82, only to found dead of heart failure at train station shortly thereafter, Buckland’s Ivan dreams of fleeing, but is tied by love to his brood.

Tragic. Yet with his handsome ability to saturate our souls with empathy for his underdog, and his trademark ability to turn a simple set into a bounty of objects large and small, Buckland beautifully stutters and tics his tale of humiliation and desire.

Direction by Sylvaine Strike, this year’s National Arts Festival featured artist, is masterful. Strike appears to be the kind of theatre maker who will suffer nothing less than perfection, and knows what that is, giving Morkel just the right amount of play and bringing out Buckland at his letting-it-all-hang-out best, which is an experience that, like grief, never leaves over time, it merely winds its way into our soul.

Her attention to detail of course extends to lighting, set and costume, so that unlike grief, seeing On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco holds within it a sadness that is a subtle joy to treasure. — Steve Kretzmann

On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, is at Rhodes Box Theatre until Sunday 6 July.

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