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Fire but too little lightning

Roshan Sewpersad

The Fire Raisers
Performed by Magnet Theatre and Theatre Spirale
Directed by Mark Fleishman
Musical direction and composition by Neo Muyanga
Set and lighting design by Michel Faure
Costume design by Ilka Louw
Puppets designed by Janni Donald
Baxter Theatre Centre, August 2004.

Originally written in response to the rise of fascism and bourgeois complacency in Europe, The Fire Raisers (1958) by leading post-World War II Swiss writer Max Frisch was chosen as the text for this SA-Swiss collaboration because of its relevance to the current political situation with fire-raising terrorists and the complacency in response to things such as global capitalism and continuing atrocities all over the world. The play reflects the need for personal responsibility, compromise, and the danger of retreating behind high walls and security fences, remaining blind to the encompassing reality.

A "morality play without a moral" played in a "theatre of intellectual fantasy, airing contemporary problems in a vein of disillusioned tragicomedy" are some of the powerful statements made about Frisch's work.

The main characters, the Biedermanns, are a wealthy, middle-class couple, attended to by the maid Anna, who lives in a town being plagued by fire raisers, who invite themselves into people's houses and then burn them down. It is a study of complex negotiation and hoodwinking and attacks complacency, yet interrogates the notion of personal responsibility.

Unfortunately, in this production the first act lacked the fluency that elevates the various parts of a play to a convincing and engaging whole.

The chorus, comprised of sculptural puppets modelled on municipal workers, was very well executed, despite the lack of vocal clarity in places. Neo Muyanga's arrangements are beautiful and draw on the rich musical traditions of is'cathamiya and freedom songs. The costumes and set were also quite intelligent.

However, the acting did not tie all of these elements together very well. The performances jarred and jostled with one another and for the audience's attention. Not that the attention was gripped.

Jamie Bartlett, a physically dominating presence, just looks and acts too damn smart to portray the too-polite Biedermann who is hoodwinked by Schmidt. Sizwe Msutu, who plays Schmidt, doesn't have the delivery to pull off the slick-tongued role convincingly. Mrs Biedermann, played by Jenni Reznek, the epitome of the bourgeois housewife, gives a studied performance for which I felt no pathos. Because of the lack of depth in her portrayal, it's easy to revert to lowest common denominator stereotypes, and unfortunately this was the case in this performance. The same must be said of Faniswa Yisa in the role of Anna, the maid. I couldn't shake the feeling that hers was a Sarafina-esque performace.

When the roles are swopped in the second half of the play, the performances improve considerably. Patrick Mohr is exciting to watch in the roles of Durassier and the underworld Monkey. Bartlett does not succeed in developing the character Schmidt any further and, in fact, seems to be playing a different Schmidt altogether.

Ivan Abrahams, on the other hand, gives a good performance as Biedermann, aware of his dangerous situation, but never prepared to face the inevitable outcome. Gary Naidoo and Bheki Ndlovu stand out as members of the chorus.

The underworld scene was by far the most engaging and cleverly devised, making use of both Biedermann pairs.

There is a much-needed quirkiness to this production that needs to be fine-tuned into a fluent and coherent whole.

LitNet: 02 September 2004

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