Cutting-edge theatre acts

2012-07-05 00:00

JAMES Cairns is a busy man — not only is he starring in the Grahamstown Festival hit, The Three Little Pigs, alongside Rob van Vuuren and Albert Pretorius, and the two-hander, Sie Weiss Alles, but he is also part of the team running the Framework Theatre Company’s collective offerings at the Drill Hall.

Cairns and fellow Framework director Nina Lucy Wylde, have pooled their talents and resources to give this old festival venue a new face, and are providing a group of cutting-edge Johannesburg-based theatre makers with the chance to stage new work.

There are six shows daily — the Flying Lessons drama workshop; the physical-theatre work, Fallen, written by Devlin Mark Brown and Mongi Mthombeni; Kaput, directed by James Cuningham; the physical comedy, Discounted, directed by Helen Iskander and starring Ben Bell, from Pietermaritzburg; and Cairns’s two-hander Sie Weiss Alles.

Cairns, a former Maritzburg College pupil, said: “It’s no secret that taking a show to the festival is getting harder and harder for independent theatre makers. We need the fringe to test out new work, as a platform for that it’s crucial. But it can also be crippling, once you’ve paid for travel and accommodation — fewer people can take the risk.”

Also at the Drill Hall is Frameworks-inspired new theatre offering Tactics, a show which is both scripted and improvised. The company last brought the concept to Grahamstown with its 2010 production of Hamlet, and this time round they present five playlets, during which neither the actors nor the audience really know what’s going to happen.

“We honestly believe that theatre can — must, in fact, be as fun and as breathtaking to watch as a major sporting event, and that’s why we are playing with new ways to make it unpredictable and risky,” says Cairns. “We learn the words to these scripts, but we don’t know who is playing what part and in what sequence — it could all fall apart in a heartbeat.”

Watching Tactics on Sunday evening was fascinating. The audience was invited to select props from the floor of the theatre, which had to be used for their actual purpose — for example a hat had to be used as a hat, a musical instrument had to play music, and biscuits had to be eaten. The audience was also asked to pick the order of the plays, and which of the actors would speak first, second, third, and so on.

After that it was something of a lottery for all involved — and by the end of the show, many in the audience were bewildered, in part, I believe, because they were unfamiliar with the five plays performed. Cairns admitted afterwards that it hadn’t been a great show, but then safety isn’t a key word for this collective. They want to stretch their own boundaries, enhance their skills, and get the audience to engage fully in theatre.

Framework’s aims have been inspired by those of British theatre company The Factory, whose stagings of Shakespeare and other dramatic classics, has been described by some critics as guerrilla theatre. Cairns and Wylde both encountered the company separately, but were equally blown away by what it was doing.

“I had been following them on Twitter, and when I was in London for 10 days, I got a tweet about a show they were doing, so I said to the people I was with that we should go. They were doing Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull. They kept the dialogue turns, but paraphrased everything and used their own names. The parts that worked were brilliant,” Cairns, who now lives in Johannesburg, said.

“When Lucy and I bumped into each other back home, and she told me she had seen them do Hamlet at the Globe, we decided to do it here. With the help of Lucy’s mom, Ingrid, we got Tim Carroll from The Factory to come and work with us.”

Since then, they’ve performed in theatres, markets and even in people’s homes. The actors change from time to time, depending on who’s available, but everyone who signs up is passionately committed. “There’s no money involved,” says Cairns, “the people who are involved are there because they want to be. They actually care about what they’re doing.”

More importantly, says Cairns, a Rhodes University graduate, is that actors can come to Framework, and get the chance to practice their craft. “I’ve learnt more doing this than from anything else since I left varsity,” he added.

Away from the Drill Hall, Cairns, whose other hits include Dirt and The Sitting Man, has enjoyed festival success with the taut thriller, The Three Little Pigs, which takes a look at the dodgy dealings which have plagued the South African Police Service, the justice system and National Prosecuting Authority in recent years. Using the bones of the traditional fairytale, Cairns, Van Vuuren and Pretorius, tell a story of corruption, police death squads, and a wide assortment of shady characters, many of whom will be familiar from media stories.

The human characters are all played as animals, creating a piece of theatre in which Animal Farm meets Dexter, with a bit of Reservoir Dogs thrown in. It’s quite simply brilliant, and the good news is that Midlands theatre-goers should get to see it. Cairns and Van Vuuren, another Maritzburg College old boy, confirmed they had spoken to Witness Hilton Festival director Sue Clarence, and the play will almost certainly be on this year’s programme.

Cairns’ other show, Sie Weiss Alles, also looks to be a Hilton certainty. Winner of a silver ovation award at last year’s Grahamstown Festival, the play, which also stars Tarryn Bennet, is set in Berlin in the last hours of the Russian advance in 1945, and revolves around an SS officer’s interrogation of a woman whose father has defected to the United States.

• arts@witness.co.za

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