Haunting Duet

 Haunting Duet

Steyn du Toit reviews two plays in Cape Town, both directed by Lara Bye, on at the Baxter and Kalk Bay theatres. Oscar and the Pink Lady is a moving production sketching a life barely lived, starring Sandra Prinsloo, while Vaslav, featuring Godfrey Johnson, outlines the life of ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky and his lifelong battle with paranoid schizophrenia

THE BEAUTY, cruelty and ephemerality in the business we call life are observed in two plays currently on in Cape Town. Oscar and the Pink Lady and Vaslav are both directed by Lara Bye, staged at the Baxter and Kalk Bay theatres, respectively.The plays also star two of the industry’s most consummate performers.

In Oscar and the Pink Lady, Bye directs Sandra Prinsloo in the role of Oscar, a terminally ill 10-year-old cancer patient. Finding him writing a series of letters to God at the beginning of the play, we learn that he only has 12 days left to live. In his first written dispatch he ob- serves that grown-ups have devel- oped a strange tendency to go deaf whenever he asks them about dy- ing, and that even his parents avoid coming to visit him in the hospital because they are too emotional.

Surrounded by a cast of kids nicknamed after their various inflictions – among them Braaivleis (a burn victim), Einstein (water on the brain), Blue Betty and Popcorn – the only adult willing to be open with Oscar is Granny Rose, an elderly volunteer who visits the hospital daily. Also played by Prinsloo (along with the rest of the characters), she then undertakes his emotional journey of dying with Oscar. By proposing that they should pretend each of his remaining 12 days represent 10 years, she explains that he will therefore be a 120-year-old by the time of his death.-Based on a 2002 novel by Belgian author Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, the production was first presented locally in 2012 after being trans- lated from French into Afrikaans by Naòmi Morgan. It has since en- joyed several acclaimed stagings across the country – scooping up a best actress award at 2012’s Aardklop as well as the best theatre production, best director and best actress nods at last year’s Klein Karoo National Arts Festival.

Supplemented by a single bench on stage, Pieter-Jan Kap’s gentle lighting cues and Braam du Toit’s tender background music, Oscar and the Pink Lady is a moving production that sees Prinsloo sketching a stirring composition of a life never lived. Guided by Bye’s direction, she succeeds in avoiding cheap tactics and sentiment to de- liver a production of substance and of big ideas. Leaving the viewer pondering issues of mortality and existentialism, few eyes were left dry at the end of opening night’s performance. Prinsloo is pure magic on stage. One of the industry’s most venerable figures, not only has she en- joyed a distinguished career in theatre, film and television spanning several decades, but her recent efforts show there’s plenty more where that came from. Aside from the intercontinental hit that was The Sewing Machine, the past few years also saw her reuniting with Marius Weyers (after nearly 30 years) in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ? and Tom Holloway’s And No More Shall We Part. We are very lucky to still see her perform so often locally.

The God of the dance

From hospital wards where children have to cram entire lifetimes into a tenth of the usual time, to institutions filled with mental illness and broken people, Vaslav revolves around Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s 30-year battle with paranoid schizophrenia. On at the Kalk Bay Theatre, and starring Godfrey Johnson as the artist often referred to as “The God of the Dance”, the script was compiled from Nijinsky’s diaries and journal entries.

Presented by way of a fragmented narrative, this brave production sees Bye and Johnson shift through the shards that was Nijinsky the man, the artist and the cultural observer. Against a back- drop of archive video footage, movement co-ordination by Fiona du Plooy as well as period music played by Johnson on piano, what emerges is a portrait of a gifted individual who continues to have an impact on our world nearly 100 years after he danced for the last time.

Judging by all the detail and nuance, a staggering amount of research into their subject’s life and cultural and historical context has been done by Bye, Johnson and Karen Jeynes (who wrote the script with them). It speaks of a creative team not simply interested in piecing together something to lure fans of Nijinsky, but rather a group of dedicated, passionate theatre- makers throwing themselves wholeheartedly into the process of presenting something of substance, honesty and respect.

The production is further elevated by the presence that is Johnson on stage. Anyone familiar with his past work – whether it’s giving a Fleur du Cap-winning performance in Kissed by Brel or playing the piano for Evita Bezuidenhout – would be able to attest to his distinct energy and command of his craft. Pushing himself even further with Vaslav, watching Johnson so consumed by his character – notice the mad glint in his eyes, the foam gathering around the corners of his mouth or the look of bliss on his face when hunched over the piano, for instance – make for an intensely memorable, moving piece of theatre.