17 July 2007

South Africa: Theatre - Bill Flynn

Johannesburg — ACTOR BILL FLYNN, who died unexpectedly last week, was a considerable artist, whose work was original and inventive. What was most striking about his craftsmanship was its compactness and sharpness, its sheer economy. Each of his characterisations had a small kernel to it: a turn of phrase or a fantastic invention which jolted the onlooker, moved the observer in the secret places of the heart, or caused a full house to laugh .

Flynn was an original member of The Space, the country's pioneering fringe theatre, founded by Brian Astbury and Yvonne Bryceland, with active input from Athol Fugard. Its company had the space to experiment and the right to fail, and produced dense, anguished and carefully wrought drama, yet lived close to the edge, defying governmental edict by showcasing black writers and actors.

After graduating from the University of Cape Town, this was a starting point for Flynn. Here his bold spirit could learn to overcome doubts . From the collaborative venture, he was able to embrace a liberating range of influences, learning to take fastidious care in the portrayal of atmosphere and suggestion. Flynn was to become master of the art of realistic hesitation. He developed into the most watchable and effective comic actor on our stages, capable -- as are all great clowns -- of portraying doubt, moral contradiction, appetite, spiritual growth, all of those things that make a person who he is.

His partners in comedy were Paul Slabolepszy, Michael Richard and Bobby Heaney. Together, they minted new words and situations, making a connection with, and interpreting, the metaphors and mysteries of our world .

Everyone has their own favourite Flynn role, but as Willy Loman in Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman, he was the consummate human being -- filled with anxiety yet upbeat, crazy with failure yet determined to persevere. On Willy's death, Mrs Loman cries : "Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person." Flynn showed us how a man shoulders sorrow and real tragedy, and then lit our lives with laughter, good humour and a sense of fun.

Mary Jordan

FRIDAY the 13th was a milestone in SA's ballet history, even if triskaidekaphobia kept audiences at home. In an exuberant debut, Lorna Maseko as Kitri, partnered by Andile Ndlovu as Basilio, breathed new life into that old war horse DON QUIXOTE, which dates back to 1869. These two young black dancers set the stage alight with their joyful presence, splendid double turns and nifty footwork. What they lacked in professional poise, compared with the senior principals on opening night (a magnificent Angela Malan pulling off no fewer than three major roles in one evening) they made up for with an invigorating freshness.

Maseko's performance had been anticipated; the surprise was Ndlovu, with a flashing smile to match the dazzling white of his costume. Not since Kimbrian Bergh has there been a male dancer in the South African Ballet Theatre with such coiled energy and grace; Ndlovu attacked this virtuoso role with verve and skill.

This pared-down version of Don Quixote shares the midwinter bill with another great work in the traditional canon, LES SYPHIDES, originally choreographed by Michael Fokine in 1909. Of the two, this plotless ballet blanc is the more difficult work, understated and fey, the dancers leaning forward with arms framed in semipermanent cameo. The corps de ballet, in particular, are hard-pushed to make the transition between this somber romanticism and the sunny Spain of Don Quixote.

Christian Tatchev is at his best as the brooding poet, the classicism of his European training evident in every elegant line. On Friday night he partnered Zenia Tatcheva in a performance as memorable as Maseko and Ndlovu's in Don Quixote. Tatcheva had lost the nervous smile she wore on opening night and the corps de ballet had tidied up their ragged lines.

Winter's double and triple bills are seldom popular; but it is worth braving the cold to see these revitalised classics. The season ends on July 22 at the Opera, State Theatre, Pretoria.

Heather Mackie

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