TOBACCO, so the conventional wisdom goes, is bad for you. And love, so they say, is good for you. But sometimes relationships can be far more toxic — and addictive — than any taboo substance.
The contradictions of the ties that bind form the nub of the play Tobacco and the Harmful Effects Thereof — a deceptively scholarly title for a majestic work that is one of the most mind-expanding new scripts SA has seen in a while.
Well, this play (on at Johannesburg’s Market Theatre until March 6) is new in a sense: rising young SA playwright William Harding has adapted it from the 1902 one-act play On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco by Anton Chekhov, about a hen-pecked husband delivering a town-hall lecture about the dangers of smoking, egged on by his domineering wife.
Harding has extended and, arguably, elevated and enhanced the original by the great Russian master. He deftly splices in snippets of philosophy, poetry and music (from Vivaldi to the art-rock soundscapes of Dead Can Dance), culminating in a fantasy scene where the “nonentity” Ivan shakes off his marital shackles and lives his dream, fleetingly but gloriously, as a noble Native American adventurer.
It becomes a cogent marital fable for the ages, examining our conflicted relationships with those we love: our adoration and devotion is often tempered with a longing for lost freedom, for an abandoned sense of self that has become subsumed in a swamp of routine and responsibility.
But for good writing to really leap off the page and take flight, it requires expert players — and a visionary director.
Here, we have the perfect pairing of two Standard Bank Young Artist award winners for theatre, 20 years apart: actor Andrew Buckland (1986) and director Sylvaine Strike (2006), collaborating for the first time. It’s a creative marriage made in heaven.
With the addition of consummate physical performer Toni Morkel in an unforgettable mime cameo, Tobacco is an experience that leaves you grasping for superlatives and overwhelmed by the quiet, shuddering violence of its impact.
The play premiered at the 2014 National Arts Festival to great acclaim and returned in 2015, playing to sold-out houses. It was handpicked to feature at last year’s Amsterdam Fringe Festival and will travel to the Woordfees Festival in Stellenbosch after its Market Theatre season. There are hopes that it will also make the trek to the Edinburgh festival, but much depends on financing.
Amsterdam audiences no doubt identified strongly with the play’s exposition of de kleine man (as expressed in the well-known song by Dutch songwriters Louis Davids and Jacques van Tol) or “the small man” who, though oppressed, revels in recapturing his sense of identity, albeit for a short while.
Buckland inhabits Ivan, a mousy man in an ill-fitting suit and civil service-issue tie, who enters a stage that’s bare save for a lectern and a gramophone.
The first hint that a rebel hides within is the classical music that accompanies him on stage: he’s placing his personal stamp on a lecture he is reluctant to deliver.
The father of 20 children, he appears to have had much of his life essence — in more respects than one — drained out of him. He is anxious, has a nervous tic and wouldn’t have looked out of place working in a post office.
Ivan’s wife (Morkel, appearing in illuminated flashes like a nagging harpy on the edges of his consciousness) has instructed him to deliver a dreary public lecture on the “harmful effects of tobacco” — a subject about which he knows very little and, moreover, doesn’t particularly care much for since he is a smoker himself.
But Ivan keeps digressing from his prepared notes, taking the audience into his confidence about the sorry state of his life, over which his wife looms large. The lectern becomes the confessional: his way of finally being seen. Eventually, this “scarecrow” escapes into a flight of fantasy that is as spellbinding as it is heartbreaking.
Buckland is sublime, in a hugely demanding role, for which he has been nominated for a Fleur du Cap. We know this veteran performer best for his physical theatre theatrics, but in this monologue he acts out of his straps while still retaining an element of (often restrained) physicality — surely one of the finest character personifications of the year on our stages.
Strike and Harding are frequent collaborators, and it’s evident here in the way she tenderly and thoughtfully brings his script to life, crafting an unforgettable work that lingers in the wings of the mind long after the lights go down. Smoke, as the all-knowing “they” say, does truly get in your eyes.