Visionary director Sylvaine Strike’s current work The Travellers could be seen as a metaphor for the local theatre industry — set on a stage that is way too small, plagued by mediocre talent and horribly incestuous.
This fabulous work, however, is none of the above. The play is about a theatre family consisting of a pushy, entrepreneurial mother (Toni Morkel) and her ‘identical” twins, Iris (Shelley Meskin) and Irving (Daniel Buckland). As strolling players on a makeshift stage, their reality has nothing much to do with ours. Strike’s vision is of bygone Europe, of tatty velvet and decaying brocade, of public squares and variety sideshows that border on freak shows.
In the course of the play, the inevitable happens when the siblings rise up to revolt against their mother’s oppressive regime. It’s not necessary to divulge whether they succeed. What matters is the family dynamic that, according to the director, is the major exploration. So The Travellers is a sort of soap opera — played on a stage just bigger than a door — about love, betrayal, bondage, freedom and revenge.
In the midst of war the little family escapes to find peace and, hopefully, a new audience. This is where we get to see the extremity of their talents.
Their sideshow routines consist of a finger-puppet show of Hamlet, tap dancing and tightrope unicycling. But it is their impersonation of two hapless, musical dwarves that tops the bill.
The most difficult thing for a performer to pull off is a convincing act of talentlessness, while reminding the audience that you are well skilled. Meskin and Buckland can mime and play guitars, mandolins and harmonicas. But they can also do too many little tricks.
The Monty Python crew of comedians in the Seventies gave us the term Pythonesque. In theatre now this means ‘bizarre” and ‘surreal” (as the dictionary defines it). But it also means, quite irritatingly, that one has to sit through a lot of over-quirky mugging and vocal pyrotechnics.
That aside, the tragic consequence of familial love is played out in its claustrophobia. The play within a play shows the borders we reach and creep back from in our relationships. How families play act to maintain sanity. How that sanity becomes insanity.
This is children’s theatre for adults, perfectly situated, designed in minute detail by Chen Nakar and Sasha Elders. For her unwavering commitment to her vision, Strike is the worthy recipient of this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist award for drama.
The Travellers is showing at the Laager Theatre in the Market Theatre complex until September 24. Call (011) 832 1641 for more information