Portrayal of a legendary figure

2007-12-04 00:00

AT one point in Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play, the actress playing Maria Callas says to the unfortunate singing student she is currently terrifying: “Theatre is not about trying, it’s about doing.”

Doing and commitment are major themes in the piece, set in a master class Callas taught at the Juilliard School in New York at the end of her opera career. She cajoles and bullies the students — two sopranos and a tenor — and while they sing, she relives moments of her own life, including her triumphs at La Scala in Milan and her tragic affair with shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis.

The Loft is an ideal venue — the intimate space could easily be a rehearsal room; the three young singers sit among the audience until it is their turn to step on to the stage, while the audience takes the role of the rest of the class.

I would not have automatically pictured Clare Mortimer in the role of Callas. She is not normally a histrionic performer, and Callas was nothing if not histrionic. But Ralph Lawson’s shrewd direction has elicited a performance of wit, humour and vulnerability that makes for a believable Callas. She is a woman who has fought for everything she has gained and, ultimately, lost. (But surely, with the resources of the Playhouse at the production’s disposal, something could have been done with her wig. It was bad enough to be a major distraction to the audience, with a strange fringe of netting visible on Mortimer’s forehead.)

The roles of the accompanist and master-class participants are taken by Juan Burgers and Durban voice students Thandulwazi Ncube, Khumbuzile Dhlamini and Sipho Langa. The three are singers rather than actors, which, while it does throw the larger-than-life Callas into relief, does also unbalance things somewhat. They never manage to project a sense of awe for the legendary figure they were dealing with.

But the play is ultimately about Callas alone, and Mortimer — who was joint winner of the Best Actress award at last week’s Durban Theatre Awards for the role — gives a sympathetic portrayal of a driven woman, whose life with all its triumphs and disasters was lived in headlines.

How to book:

Master Class runs at the Playhouse Loft until December 9. Shows: 7 pm Tuesday to Saturday, with 3 pm matinée performances on Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets: R70 from Computicket. One copy of a Callas CD is given away to an audience member at each performance.

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