After years of paths crossing, the stars finally aligned for theatre director Sylvaine Strike and legendary thespian Andrew Buckland – they finally got to work together on a play. The play is called Tobacco, and the Harmful Effects Thereof, and is currently showing at the Market Theatre in Newtown, Johannesburg until 6th March 2016.
Hearing about the two artists’ passive ten year courtship, I couldn’t help but imagine them bumping into each other and blowing air kisses at those fabulous art soirees with men in cravats and women in Gatsby-era frocks. You know, those fabulous, out-of-reach, high-brow art society types. I couldn’t be more wrong. I met two down to earth, very human artists; attentive, passionate and knowledgeable; genuinely loving what they do, and equally important, loving the opportunity to share it with the world.
Strike, winner of the Standard Bank Young Artist Award in 2006, talks about Tobacco with a cautious pride, similar to Erykah Badu’s “Keep in mind that I am an artist” Call-Tyrone-debut-preamble. She’s delicate in her approach, and yet she is not too precious. She seems sensitive – about the treatment of her work by herself and others, and in the way she lets go of the work, allowing the audience ample room to interface with it as they please. Her passion shines through. It’s both refreshing and captivating.
I met Buckland backstage just before the performance. I thought that was very daring for the Market Theatre to allow us the opportunity to meet the cast before the play. Back in my days of high school theatre, I remember pre-show being a sacred time. It was the time I was trying to get into character so I was most nervous, most introverted and most unfriendly. When I walked into Buckland’s dressing room, although I was excited to meet him, I was aware not to throw his equilibrium. He was as charming as I imagined and he indulged me, in the midst of his make up, when I asked for a selfie.
The single-act play is an adaptation of an 1886 play, Anton Chekhov’s The Harmful Effects of Tobacco. Adapted by Fortune Cookie Theatre Company’s resident playwright, William Harding, it is the original story, infused with gobbets from various literary giants through the ages: Jane Austen, Franz Kafka, Oscar Wilde, to mention a few. Being a studious re-imagination of the Checkov play, it would be very interesting to see how gobbets from writers of this place, Africa, like Soyinka, Mda, wa Thiong’o, Fuggard, Kente, would have affected the Russian work. That being said, it is a dynamic piece of work whose text engages intellectually and emotionally.
Buckland plays Ivan, the protagonist who is a middle-aged man, whose stern wife, played by another thespian of note, Toni Morkel, has forced him to give a lecture on Tobacco and its harmful effects. He is not a lecturer, but he does attempt. As he gives the lecture, what unfolds are the different nuances of his lived reality, using his marriage as an anchor. He digresses from his speech often, into poignant moments of introspection and reflection – his sad life, his dominant wife and an imagined freedom.
Buckland delivers with sincerity. He will have you in stitches one moment and empathising with the character’s sadness the next. Although the play is dubbed a comedy, I found the poignant moments lingering longer, in me at least, and it was in those moments that I connected with the work.
I also experienced a glaring vulnerability in the portrayal of the character, to which Strike attests to the ‘simple clown’ approach. Buckland wears a prosthetic nose, which I felt freed him in the way a mask would, to fully embody the various attributes of Ivan without ego or reservation. He transformed, and it was marvellous to behold.
Tobacco, And The Harmful Effects Thereof is a theatrical masterpiece, delicately directed and executed with such sincerity and excruciatingly-human detail. Theatre aficionado or not, the play will bowl you over, and, surprisingly stay with you for quite some time.
#Tobacco debuted at The Grahamstown Arts Festival in 2014 and has shown at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town and recently, at the Amsterdam Fringe Festival. The play is currently showing at Market Theatre’s Barney Simon Theatre. The season runs until 6th March 2016 and show times are on Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8.15pm and on Sundays at 3.15pm. Bookings can be made here>>> or by calling Anthony Ezeoke on 011 832 1641 ext 121.
***Images supplied by the Market Theatre