Save the Pedestals
29th March 19
I've seen some puppets in action from time to time - most notably in Indonesia - but I can honestly say that I've never seen anything quite like South African author Ivan Vladislavic's avant-garde "Save the Pedestals".
Currently at the Baxter Flipside Theatre for only four shows, it’s been made possible by the TURN Fund of the German Federal Cultural Foundation). Loosely based on an as yet unpublished story by Vladislavić, it focuses on two elderly political veterans, Comrade A with his Zimmer frame, and Ma Z. The main characters are represented by two huge papier maché puppets, ingeniously designed and created by Adrian Kohler of the award-winning Handspring Puppet Company (founded in 1981).
The simple plot involves the establishment of a monthly lunch ritual after the elderly comrades collect their pensions, during which they take a moment to contemplate an old monument erected during apartheid. Like most experimental theatre, it takes a little time to work out what on earth is going on. Expect slumbering puppeteers struggling to sleep, a soy sauce Lenin painted live on a plate, and a multi-person water fountain made from cascading bowls. There are extraordinary dream sequences, in which the sleeping actors brilliantly recreate renowned global statues, the complexity of which can’t be properly depicted in a review. Director Robyn Orlin (described as “widely regarded as one of South Africa’s most controversial and provocative choreographers and performance artists”) warrants significant praise here.
Whilst at the heart of the play is political commentary encompassing the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ movement in Cape Town and other unsavoury colonialists and dictators, its playfulness is immediately apparent. It’s a deliciously perplexing melee which starts with heavy breathing under drapes, and ends with an audience invitation to inspect the enormous puppet pair on stage. The dialogue is delightfully tongue-in-cheek, and I suspect an element of improvisation was also present. The action is a joyful extravaganza accomplished through the use of web-cams in the eyes of Ma Z and Comrade X, whose decreasing visual acuity is expressed through overlapping projections, making the action both visceral and disorientating.
There are superb performances by the Halle Puppet Theatre in Germany (Mmakgosi Tsogang Kgabi, Franziska Rattay, Ivana Sajevic, Lambert Mousseka Ntumba, and Nico Parisius), who, amazingly, only rehearsed together for a month and a half. Although the puppeteers were masterful (watch out for the slow-motion scene, which is extremely realistic), it was the clever use of technology which so impressed me. Interwoven throughout the performance, it was integral to the success of the piece. Whilst the use of ipads and webcams is not new in theatre, the technology, lighting, sound and video by Henryk Drewniok and Thorsten Soklowski is slickly impressive.
Enticingly multi-layered and complex, this play constantly challenges the audience’s suspension of disbelief, which waxes and wanes. For example, so mesmerised was I by the immense old lady puppet at the start that I thought the first actor too tiny to be anything but a child. This piece of theatre never ceases to surprise, with actors playing puppeteers and puppeteers playing actors, and a ‘Big Brother’ moment where we feel we’ve entered into the secret lives of the actors, except they’re only acting. Confused? You will be! But you won’t be disappointed.
The Baxter has always enabled students to push the boundaries of art and theatre, and whilst not a student production, this piece does that with aplomb. The clever use of the webcams creating live footage makes this a slightly bewildering experience, but also a wonderfully esoteric one. I felt genuinely sad for both theatre-goers and the performers that “Save the Pedestals” has such a short run in Cape Town. It was a sell-out on the first night – if you want to snatch up a ticket, you’d better hurry.
Dates: 28-30 March 2019
30 March, 4.00-5.30pm