The many faces of Rob van Vuuren

‘Theatre is a medium that allows us to accept this wonderful lie as the truth for a while,” says Rob van Vuuren, aka the uniquely South African genetic throwback Twakkie from The Most Amazing Show. He might be thinly stretched, but he’s somehow managing to balance no less than 13 shows running in the space of two weeks in Grahamstown — and he’s pulling it off with remarkable finesse. He’s juggling not only his time but his roles as actor and director. “I’ve always done more than one show at the fest. The roles are defined and it’s easy to get into the mindset. It’s something that comes naturally to me — and it’s the only thing I can multitask at.”

He acts in Electric Juju (directed by Helen Iskander and James Cunningham), Brother Number and Rob van Vuuren is Ron van Wuuren. He directs The Best Man’s Speech (featuring Louw Venter, Twakkie’s bumbling sidekick, Corné), Isabella (starring Leila Anderson and Scott Sparrow), Out of Time (with Louw Venter again), Rumpsteak (with Gaetan Schmid), Swazi (featuring Mark Elderkin), The Performer’s Travel Guide (with Scott Sparrow), Mouche (starring Tim Redpath), Odd One Out (with Cokey Falkow), as well as music acts Fly Paper Jet’s Travelling Salesman and the eclectic acoustic duo Cabins in the Forest. He’s even branched into stand-up comedy, which he happens to be particularly good at. He’s genuinely funny and extremely talented.

He copes with support from his wife, his production manager and the huge number of performers with whom he collaborates. It also helps that none of his shows are opening here. “They all opened at the Intimate Theatre in Cape Town, so we’re comfortable enough to deal with curve balls,” he says.

When he acts he’s able to slip in and out of character with such seemingly seamless ease you’re convinced he’s morphed into a different person. In Electric Juju and Brother Number, both rooted in physical theatre, a nuanced swagger or an astutely observed accent is all he needs to show the audience the change. He doesn’t spoonfeed the crowd. “Theatre is about the communication between the audience and the performer and as an audience there are some leaps you have to take. That way when the penny drops it’s more rewarding,” he says.

The one-man masterpiece, Electric Juju — easily the people’s choice at the Fringe Festival — is a fantasy written and performed by Van Vuuren in which a man finds a giant’s corpse buried in the ground. He digs out its heart to sell it at the market, travelling across a barren imagined landscape with foils along the way. “When I was writing it I wondered why he would want a giant’s heart. Wouldn’t other people want to get hold of it?” The actor tells a detailed but simple and visually stark tale — it’s like a condensed fantasy reminiscent of Terry Pratchett with a Tolkein-like, Sauronesque baddie thrown in.

Rob van Vuuren is Ron van Wuuren is more an anecdotal one-way conversation with the audience than a performance. He speaks earnestly about his experiences as a practitioner and gives the audience a behind-the-scenes take on some of his experiences. “It’s quite cathartic [to speak about his festival experience]. But I’ve coped with the stress of taking too many shows to the festival by writing another show,” he says.

It’s similar to his stand-up performance, although he insists the show isn’t stand-up. Van Vuuren adopts a more British, character-based and situational approach than most South African comedy performers — who usually have American-style, punchline- driven, isolated gags that often rely on racial stereotypes.

“South African comedy is so often about the punchline. For me it’s not. South Africa has such a rich landscape for comedy, but within that context you’re always going to have stand-ups who pander to easy gags,” he says. “I’m trying stand-up for two reasons — it makes me uncomfortable and stand-ups make more money,” which he says would be most welcome since he’s maxed out his budget with 13 shows.

One thing to understand is that Twakkie and Van Vuuren are worlds apart, although he says he’ll never leave Twakkie behind. The Most Amazing Show was a South African institution with a huge cult following. It was to South Africa what Ali G was to the United Kingdom — a satirical look at an idiotic slice of society.

Although comedy is still his forte, he’s diversifying and making his mark across South Africa’s theatres.

Van Vuuren doesn’t know what lies ahead after the festival. He’ll probably take some well-earned time off. In the longer term he’d like to take his work overseas, but he’s not sure how. “You have to find a niche like Corné and Twakkie did or pander to the masses, but I’m not really into pandering to the masses,” he says.

This is evident from the direction his work is moving, bar the odd lapse into the Twakkie persona or the frequent “poo joke”, which seems inextricable from his on and off-stage character. He’s also interested in doing a collaboration with the artists — the country’s theatre elite — with whom he’s worked in the past six months leading to the festival.

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