A small stage with a red velvet curtain and intricate gold trimmings welcomes the audience. Soon the curtain is pulled back to reveal the world of the travelling players, conveyed through the Formidable Frosts, a family (a mother and twins) who live to entertain.
The Travellers is a dream-like tale from the Fortune Cookie Theatre Company, directed by Sylvaine Strike with creative input by Brian Webber and workshopped by the company. It is a visual spectacle of mime, puppetry, stylised characterisation and a heightened sense of parody in a style reminiscent of vaudeville combined with the comic elements of Punch and Judy.
The minute set symbolises the essence of theatre. It provides a stage for the players to entertain as well strut and fret through their own, real-life drama. Constantly at the mercy of the audience on the other side of the curtain, they have to juggle their personal lives with the challenges of entertaining.
“I’m interested in the persona of the actor and his or her relationship to an audience, how an actor feels when he or she is out of work, and the idea of performing for survival,” explains Strike.
Toni Morkel, Daniel Buckland and Shelley Meskin provide captivating performances. Their physical discipline and range of performing skills make all three actors well suited for these roles — notably Buckland and Morkel, who have recently been selected for the Cirque du Soleil and are experts in the art of clowning.
Typical of the magical-realism genre, we begin seeing the ordinary within the extraordinary and a deeper meaning behind the abstract imagery. Illusion is replaced by delusion and the childlike spirit of the beginning is juxtaposed with reality. The red curtain becomes pivotal in the family drama: what we see in front of the curtain, what goes on behind it and what it will reveal next. In this case, it is deception and lies.
“It plays to our naivety of the theatre and the sinister world that lurks beneath the circus,” adds Strike.
The sense of a journey is conveyed by the revolving, mobile set and the continuous action, but what is more interesting is the characters’ internal world; they are forced to embark on inner journeys. By being persistently on the move, they are inevitably avoiding the truth.
The Travellers looks at contemporary South African issues of truth and displacement from an innovative and entertaining perspective. In this exploration, truth is personal, not political.
Although superbly creative, one gets the sense that certain scenes could have been developed further. The final moments are possibly a little rushed and one has to wonder if the imagery at the end slightly overshadows the quest for truth. Maybe some of the realistic elements of magical realism should have been explored further.
Strike disagrees: “I could have written an epic, but in theatre, compression is the greatest skill … my work is not graphic, it’s poetic.”
The Travellers premiered at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and shows at Johannesburg’s Wits Theatre from July 19 to 24. It moves on to the Aardklop festival in Potchefstroom in September for only two shows. The company is negotiating a stint at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town and possibly a tour of Australia and Réunion.