The many faces of Lindiwe Matshikiza

The warm water with lemon and honey alongside the shot of brandy Lindiwe Matshikiza is nursing isn’t for the multiple personality disorder she might be suffering. It’s merely a salve for a bout of flu.

At the tail-end of an almost month-long run of Bafana Republic at Durban’s Catalina Theatre, Matshikiza is discussing the toll of touring this superb, satirical one-hander, written by Mike van Graan and directed by Lara Bye: ‘It’s heavy, because of the material one has to deal with. It’s satire, it’s dense with so many issues and so many punch lines. So many jokes, both subtle and unsubtle,” she says. ‘Also because of the people who come to watch: what are their responses? What are they laughing at? Are they laughing because of the irony, or because they don’t get the irony? It’s a very emotional kind of ride for me and — because when I tour it’s just me and all the characters in my head — it really does feel like some kind of mild multiple-personality issue.

Hopefully I won’t have a nervous breakdown,” she says, laughing.

Chatting to Matshikiza, her sensitivity to both her work and audiences’ responses to it is palpable. That she might be a little fragmented because of the show’s 10 characters who have been kicking around in her head since the beginning of the year, can, perhaps, be attributed to one fact: she is so good at them.

Using the country’s fixation with the 2010 World Cup to cut through contemporary South African society, Bafana Republic is as incisive as it is hilarious.

In a series of skits held together by Martina van Schalkwyk, a middle-class Afrikaner tour guide taking tourists around a South Africa in the throes of a World Cup, the audience is introduced to nine other characters. These include Chardonnay, the tottering totty of a footballer’s wife whose skit uses a play on an alcoholic language register to humorous effect; a football commentator — viewing the football field as a political landscape; and a representative from People Against Heretics and Detractors (Pahad), who is virulent in attacking anyone with the gall to suggest that hosting a multibillion-rand World Cup is, perhaps, not such a good idea.

With barely a change to costume, and hardly a prop in sight, Matshikiza’s bringing to life of these characters and their places in society is chameleon-like in its proficiency and she is as electric as the script. Her performance emphasises why the play won best one-person show at the inaugural South African Comedy Awards in September, where Matshikiza was also nominated for best breakthrough artist.

Having graduated from the Rhodes University drama department two years ago, she admits to being new to comedy and to a personal preference for the physical theatre of Steven Berkoff and the work of Bertolt Brecht.

In her own fledgling career as a playwright and director (she has directed one play, the single-hander Recess at this year’s Grahamstown National Arts Festival) she has a preference for ‘universal human stories, but with a fantastical kind of thread running through them”.

The 24-year-old attributes much of her performance, especially her ‘comedic timing” to director Bye, a 2005 best director award winner in the comedy and satire category of the Pansa Festival of Reading of New Writing.

Matshikiza’s biggest contribution to Bafana Republic, she feels, is ‘the character detail” she brought, researching extensively by following people from varying backgrounds around with tape recorders to pick up their nuances of speech, going to her first football match and listening to football commentary on radio and television for the ‘strange kind of tone that a lot of commentators have”.

‘Lara and I constructed lives around all the characters to make them less confusing,” she says of her seamless navigation of characters.

The daughter of playwright, actor and writer John Matshikiza and tourism dynamo Tanya Abrahamse, Lindiwe was born in England. She came to South Africa when she was eight. Growing up in Johannesburg, she attended school in Pretoria: ‘As the years go by I become more and more comfortable with the fact that some things are inherited —

‘Some of it is nature and some of it is nurture because I did grow up around theatre and knowing the music of my grandfather [jazz musician, writer and journalist Todd]. But that is related to a different time and I respond to things slightly differently. I’m not sure where genetics end and I begin, but we are all part of this continuum I suppose.”

Of her own career and the state of theatre in South Africa, she says: ‘There is an interesting wave of young artists coming through. I felt it a lot in Grahamstown this year: this sense that people wanted to push boundaries and not subscribe to some form of genericism [sic] in response to what is going on … I think arts, and the performing arts in particular, are really powerful mediums that have the potential to address the current situation, issues of communication, hang-ups of the past, hang-ups of the future.”

Bafana Republic runs at the State Theatre in Pretoria until November 4 as part of the Festival of Minimalistic Production. It will then move to the Market Theatre from November 6.

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