Sensitive direction is applied to enviable talent in this one-hander, which explores the times and mind of that controversial genius, Nijinsky.
Director Lara Bye, who co-wrote the work with Godfrey Johnson and Karen Jeynes, has not deviated significantly from her previous reading of Vaslav, but there are some changes since its maiden run back in 2014. For a start, its current setting in the Fugard Studio is more spacious and on the whole works better than the more intimate stage where it was first performed. As Johnson himself remarked, “It’s more appropriate to keep some distance between the character and the audience, as that enhances the aura of Nijinsky.”
Then there is the supreme ease of Johnson’s impersonation which, however remarkable five years ago, has mellowed even further into a thing of wonder. He does not portray the ballet icon so much as become him, eclipsing his own identity in the process. The only downside to this present production is occasional stridency from amplification that either blots out Johnson’s speech or makes his words unintelligible at times. If intentional, it’s presumably introduced to give the illusion of babbling hysteria from a deranged man, but it detracts from the audience’s otherwise complete thrall.
Vaslav is a moody, dark, unconventional cabaret that recreates not only an era (that of the early 20th century, with its revolutionary questioning of established aesthetics, art forms, the social order and political thinking), but also the life of an exceptional artist who danced for the last time at the age of 28. In addition to tracing his biography with the help of contemporary photos projected onto a simple white backdrop, the show offers a perspective of his values and personal philosophy, the latter remarkably generous and inclusive. He comes across as eccentric rather than insane, with the assertion, “I am not an animal, I am a MAN” recurring as a poignant leitmotif.
Johnson’s calibre as actor, musician and mimic is tested to the limit as he evokes a variety of Nijinsky’s contemporaries, such as Diaghilev and Stravinsky, people of all ages and both sexes including the great dancer’s sister. All are presented with aplomb while the performer’s left hand, à la Ravel, carelessly caresses melodies out of the keyboard to provide a soundtrack to the action. The piano is a major element in the show as it enables Johnson to ring the changes of mood essential to the spirit of Vaslav, from a dulcet, delicately murmured chord or two to turbulent, sweeping arpeggios played fortissimo. The choice of music is, as one would expect, eclectic – it includes everything from Saint Saens’ Dying Swan to ragtime, but all appropriate to the period, circa 1913.
Jon Keevy’s lighting maximises the dramatic qualities of the show, as well as suggesting the claustrophobia of life in an asylum, at odds with the expansive gestures in which Johnson/Nijinsky indulges with the nostalgia of past stardom and memories of travel across the globe to showcase his art…
This evening in the company of a troubled genius is well worth the hour or so of its duration.
Director: Lara Bye
Cast: Godfrey Johnson
Venue: The Fugard Studio, until November 17