News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Monday July 22nd 2019

From the hip to the Main

Rob Murray (at back) directs Thumeka Mzayiya, Daniel Robinson and Liezl de Kock.

Rob Murray (at back) directs Thumeka Mzayiya, Daniel Robinson and Liezl de Kock in Benchmarks

“Rob is the hardest working person in theatre I know”, said a theatre director after seeing FTH:K’s first showing of ‘Quack’ at the National Arts Festival two years ago.

Certainly Rob Murray, who is artistic director and founding member of theatre company From the Hip: Khulumakahle, is not in the habit of making things easy for himself.

Theatre is, essentially, about telling a story. But FTH:K’s raison d’être is to “integrate the Deaf into the performing arts world in South Africa”, which means their performances have no spoken dialogue.

The company members – both hearing and Deaf – have to also learn and teach sign language in order to communicate with each other offstage.

Yet despite the challenges the company set for themselves, Pictures of You won the 2010 Standard Bank Ovation Award, 2009 Fleur du Cap Best Lighting Design Award to Rob Murray and Best Prop and/or Puppetry Design Award to Jannie Younge.

The Afro-Gothic Quack! and Wombtide have also received critical acclaim. The five-year-old company’s hard work has paid off. Having showcased their work on the National Arts Festival’s gruelling Fringe since 2005 they are this year on the Main programme with the debut of Benchmarks.

Although Benchmarks at the moment only exists as a page on the festival’s programme, it is a page to be bookmarked.

“Benchmarks is so new it hasn’t been made yet,” says Murray calmly, just five weeks prior to their July 4 premier.

But that doesn’t mean he is frantically cobbling together a play. On the contrary, all is going according to plan. The myriad demands of FTH:K have been delegated in order that he, along with the cast and crew, could spend seven weeks entirely devoted to perfecting this work.

Murray’s approach is “organic”, with set and props designer Craig Leo, Mask designer Cristina Salvoldi, Sound designer James Webb, costume designer Jayne Batzofin and the cast of Liezl de Kock, Daniel Robinson and Thumeka Mzayiya all providing critical input assimilated and directed by Murray.

“It’s all about getting the right people on board…allowing them to be part of the creation,” he says.

“It’s not just my vision, although it becomes more so as the show crystallises. But we keep it as open as possible for as long as possible, creating new ideas as we develop.”

Although not even Murray yet knows what will go on Stage on July 4, the main characters and storyline is tacked down.

His inspiration is the nameless, faceless city crowd, the alienation, the dehumanisation that occurs when there is too much humanity.

“But as you scan the city, as everything rushes past, something catches your eye, there’s a point which you focus on”.

Like William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence where the world can be seen in a grain of sand, it is this “very little story” that tells a larger South African tale.

There’s a timid middle-aged clerk, a reclusive widow and young Zimbabwean refugee as the main characters in a narrative with the predominant theme of change.

Masked theatre is a discipline FTH:K – due to their focus on non-verbal dialogue – is dedicated to mastering.

It is a demanding task. Rather than being something the performers can hide behind, they paradoxically make them more vulnerable by placing an exacting reliance on the body, and the space around it, to tell the story. There is no text to mask a performer’s lapse in concentration.

In Benchmarks, the masks of the three main characters are imbued with personality while those of the peripheral characters – the police, the tsotsi, the secretaries who harass Rodney the clerk – are archetypal, they “open up a canvas for the audience to project their fears, nightmares, desires”, says Murray.

He also has fascinating ideas for the set. With change as the central theme, the crew are working on creating a background that is fluid, with “scenes set up only to dissolve”, all enhanced by Webb’s masterful soundtrack and Murray’s own lighting prowess.

Yet despite FTH:K’s track record, Murray is adamant that the company’s name is not something upon which to trade.

“We (the creators) should disappear and the show stands or falls on its own merit.”

I suspect Benchmarks will stand, and with Murray’s stated desire to push masked theatre as far as it can go, it may even stand as a benchmark itself.


Note that while Murray may ‘disappear’ from his Benchmarks when it is staged, he will be appearing on stage himself, in the “dark and twisted” Kardiãvale on the Arena programme.

Intriguingly, it’s described as a ‘cabaret clown noire spectacle’ directed by Emilie Starke and performed by Murray and Liezl de Kock, the trio who make up the alliance of artists who call themselves the Conspiracy of Clowns. — Steve Kretzmann




Tags: Benchmarks, Daniel Robinson, Deaf theatre, FTH:K; From the Hip: Kulumakahle, Grahamstown, James Webb, Jannie Younge, Kardiavale, Liezl de Kock, National Arts Festival, Quack!, Rob Murray, Thumeka Mzayiya, Wombtide

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One Response to “From the hip to the Main”

  1. […] Kardiàvale in May and a “Conspiracy of Clowns in association with FTH:K” piece, debuts Benchmarks at the National Arts […]

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