When the crème de la crème of Cape Town’s theatre-makers join forces to present new work, the result is predictably stimulating, a tad disconcerting, and highly entertaining. One director, two actors and four dramatists between them confirm not for the first time that brevity is the soul of wit: none of the four playlets included in this latest edition of Anthology outstays its welcome, since their duration is restricted to less than 20 minutes, every one of which is replete with matter for mirth, thought, or both.
With staging at its most minimalistic, more attention can be given to the script and the quality of portrayal. Neither disappoints, with Nicholas Pauling and Maggie Gericke generating superb ensemble in each two-hander under Louis Viljoen’s astute direction; they exhibit enviable versatility as they navigate a demanding array of roles in less than 90 minutes.
First up is Dara Beth’s whimsical New Moon in which a drama student, grappling with the text of Romeo and Juliet, resorts in desperation to the supernatural to find herself face to face with the truculent spirit of Will Shakespeare himself, impersonated by Pauling in 21st century attire and a luxuriant wig. There are the clichés of séance candles and loosening exercises (mirroring the clichés of the hoary text), all of which appear to annoy the Bard – but the chief irritant for him is failure to escape present reality and return to the ether whence he came. Until liberation is effected involuntarily by the student herself. There are some delicious throw-away lines (such as “Don’t be necrophobic”) peppering their edgy dialogue as they progress towards a clean break with convention… The moral of the play? Be careful when summoning up spirits, as you never know what might befall you.
More grounded in reality is Jon Keevy’s Vultures, an unedifying perspective on human nature in the aftermath of a bereavement. The deceased’s estranged son and his alluring young widow have all the warmth and compassion of two vultures picking over a corpse as, united in rapacity, they confront each other over the estate. But what they want differs, which becomes apparent once layers of hypocrisy and delusion are gradually stripped away. Tension is palpable as the pair confront each other in a penumbra as sinister as their respective personalities: Keevy’s dramatic flair and taut dialogue hold the audience in thrall throughout progress towards the “clean break” of the climax, while the Pauling/Gericke partnership milks these roles for all they’re worth.
Jemma Kahn’s distinctive blend of shrewdness and satire delivers a riveting dialogue in Amy, referencing the short and tragic life of singer Amy Winehouse. It exposes the heartless professionalism of which some shrinks are capable in the face of needy patients, and this is arguably Pauling at his most magisterial. Gericke is the perfect foil to his performance, round-eyed, blankly inattentive, and convincingly vulnerable in her quest for a clean break to cure her depression. Despite the sombre theme, there is razor-sharp humour to leaven this therapeutic exchange, culminating in fanciful interpretations of ink-blot tests… and after the “your time is up” cliché, Pauling delights the audience with an unexpected rendition of song to confirm the shrink’s duplicity.
Rounding off the evening in florid style is Viljoen’s latest offering, Getting Off the Good Ship Venus, a title that already gives a hint of issues raised in this intriguing period piece. Benjamin, a pirate captain and Billy, his cabin boy, are shipwrecked on a tropical island and work through a rich farrago of scatological fantasies and reminiscences, preceded by the bawdy lyrics of a sea shanty. The language is gross, the spirits high, the behaviour uninhibited, and the dénouement far from what one might anticipate. Pauling acts at full throttle, upstaging his co-lead - but apart from this slight wobble in their otherwise excellent partnership, neither shows any sign of flagging stamina as this final play reaches its climax (pun intended).
With such diversity, the 2019 Anthology: Clean Break is well up to the high standard set by previous themed mini-plays in this series, a strong antidote to ennui for any jaded theatregoers.
Anthology: Clean Break
Four short plays by Dara Beth, Jon Keevy, Jemma Kahn and Louis Viljoen
Director: Louis Viljoen
Cast: Nicholas Pauling and Maggie Gericke
Venue: Alexander Playhouse