Local graduates back in town

2010-01-22 15:35

JAMES Borthwick and Graham Hopkins could not be less alike: when I meet them as they set up for a performance of Life's a Pitch at Michaelhouse earlier this week, Hopkins is neat and precise in smart jeans and shirt while the shorts-wearing Borthwick is bigger and untidier.

I know from previous meetings that Hopkins taught maths at Alexandra High School in the city after leaving university, while Borthwick paid his way through his studies by being a stoker on the railways. They both still look the part - the dapper maths master versus the scruffy railwayman.

But despite appearances, they have more in common than simply having been together for something like 400 performances of Paul Slabolepszy's cricket comedy over the last nine years - they both learnt their acting skills in the drama department on the local university campus.

The two were not there at the same time - they first met in the early eighties when working for the now defunct Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (Pact) - but both were taught by many of the same people - Roger Orton, Rosemary Bamford, Dennis Schauffer and Hazel Barnes among them.

“There were limited numbers of men in the department when I was there, so you got a chance to be in a lot of productions,” says Hopkins. “I was Snoopy in You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, and was in Oh What a Lovely War and Berkoff's Agamemnon.”

Borthwick remembers a Bamford-directed Caucasian Chalk Circle and A Servant of Two Masters. But he says he didn't enjoy being a drama student as much as Hopkins did and in fact, although he finished his drama course, dropped out of university before he graduated, later finding his academic niche studying philosophy to honours level through Unisa.

This run is the first time Life's a Pitch has been staged in Pietermaritzburg - it had an early appearance during its development at the 1998 Hilton Festival and had a run at the Sneddon theatre in Durban a year later. Borthwick brought the Slabolepszy single-hander, Tickle to Fine Leg, which is the first in the trilogy of cricket plays, to the Hexagon some years ago.

It was Borthwick who suggested Hopkins to Slabolepszy when he was casting the character of Richard Hopcroft for Under the Oaks, the second play in the trilogy - and not just because of the synchronicity of the names. Borthwick's character, Corky Labuschagne, is loud and bumbling while Hopkins's Hopcroft is private school educated (Michaelhouse apparently, not Hilton which is where the actor had his schooldays) and a precise traditionalist.

“I suppose to a certain extent they are stereotypes,” says Hopkins. “But they are very recognisable from a South African point of view, and in the play, you see each one through the other's eyes. That's what makes them funny.”

“I may be biased - in fact, I am biased, but if you look at the structure of the play, it's brilliant comedy,” says Borthwick. “It brings you up and pulls you down, and fits in with the rhythm of a cricket match.”

Hopkins agrees. “On the face of it, it might just be two blokes sitting around, but it's clever. If we get it right, it works.”

Their sparring on the stage does not spill over into real life. Despite the longevity of the play, the two still enjoy working together, and different personalities or not, get on well. “Everyone gets on with Graham - he's the phlegmatic type,” is how Borthwick puts it.

Both men are instantly recognisable faces, having appeared on television, in films and, of course, on stage. For both, despite its insecurities, theatre is their favourite medium, although Borthwick would love to have done more film - if South Africa had a decent film industry.

“We think we are better at making films than we are,” he says. Hopkins is not so sure: “We don't celebrate our own enough when it's good,” he says. “We seem to need someone else to tell us when we are doing something right.”

It is the first - and only - sign of disagreement between the two disparate characters.

• Life's a Pitch runs at the Hexagon until Saturday with shows at 7.30 pm nightly. Tickets are R60 (R50 concessions) and to book, phone 033 260 5537 or e-mail hexagon@ukzn.ac.za

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