Life, etc

THEATRE: Florence: A show about Joburg, for Joburgers

Wit skims along throughout the production of Florence, by playwright Myer Taub.

Here’s a fascinating piece of theatre – one of those “love it or hate it” creations that sparks debates and widely divergent opinions in the post-performance chatter. Florence by playwright Myer Taub is a highly unusual and complex piece that blends fact with fantasy in a one-woman show about Florence Phillips, the founder of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. My row in the audience featured a few disparagers and a near-snoozer, counterbalanced by the standing ovation crowd, hailing it as a show about Joburg for Joburgers and applauding performer Leila Henriques as a tour de force. Henriques certainly grabs the script and invests herself in it, recreating the not-to-be-muzzled Florence who lived a rich and fascinating life that matched the gung-ho attitude of early Johannesburg. Taub’s script runs two consecutive scenarios: an actress chewing over tackling the role of Florence as she lunches with an invisible playwright, and the actress playing Florence as a ghost outside the art gallery as she revisits her life. In both portrayals Henriques is exuberant, her face an ever-changing palette of emotions. Florence was apparently famous for her headaches and her tantrums, and Henriques captures that sense of colonial eccentricity. She’s a powerhouse of ambition and non-subservience, a pioneer who elevated art despite coquettishly claiming to know nothing about it. The script bounces around in thoughts and actions, flinging out fragments of ideas that are exposed, then gone. A litany of characters and events are referenced that you might know nothing of, and come away little wiser. I have no idea what’s going on,” my friend whispered after 10 minutes. Clarity will unfold, I thought. But not entirely. Director Greg Homann has Henriques highlight the erratic nature of the words with melodramatic actions and exaggerated energy, so it sweeps you along even as you mentally try to grab some of the passing characters and events to grasp who Florence was from this muddled history lesson. The events of her life were dramatic in their own right – wooing her husband, the mining magnate Lionel Phillips, profiting in the diamond rush, dodging a war or two, her husband at one stage sentenced to death for a political uprising, and her unrequited love for Irish art dealer Hugh Lane. It’s a fabulous story with much to tell, but Taub’s presentation in disjointed chunks feels needlessly complicated, with cleverness stirred in for the sake of it, leaving art confused by artifice. The striking set by sculptor Richard Forbes is one of the most unusual I’ve seen – a crown of green metal spikes completely enclosing Florence, mimicking the railings that make art unapproachable by isolating Johannesburg Art Gallery from the masses of Joubert Park. The design is highly effective both physically and metaphorically, while a subtle soundtrack of traffic, music and voices pins the action firmly in Johannesburg. When the spikes occasionally obscure the view of Florence, or hide the words on a screen that introduce the different scenes, you may suspect that the set symbolises the inaccessibility of the script as well as the separation of art for the elite. Wit skims along throughout the production, but it feels as nebulous as smoke, puffs of substance here and there, yet frustratingly fanciful and fleeting. Love it or hate it, it’s theatre that makes you think and discuss and debate and argue. How fabulous. DM Florence runs at the Market Theatre until August 26. Tickets from Webtickets.

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