Writer/director: Jane Taylor
Creative collaborator: Aja Marneweck and the Paper Body Collective
Puppet sculptor: Gavin Younge
Sound design and composition: Julia Raynham
Artist: Penny Siopis as the Anatomy artist.
ACADEMIA has its gateways, its increasingly rarefied rings of knowledge and power the keys to which are handed over with ceremony to those who crack the nod.
After Cardenio is similarly layered and how deeply you are able to penetrate it depends on your grasp of theatre and literature, both historical and contemporary.
However – and I don’t claim to have penetrated anywhere near the inner sanctum of this piece – After Cardenio is not exclusive. The view of ivy-clad masonry from the outside can be as pleasing to the inquisitive first-year undergraduate as the Dean’s view from inside their elevated office – one does not have to be an experienced or learned theatregoer to walk away satisfied.
I use the academic metaphor because After Cardenio’s genesis is the epitomy of academic production.
The background to this intriguing play is a worldwide commission by scholar Stephen Greenblatt to a dozen playwrights to write a version of what is believed to be a missing Shakespeare play, The History of Cardenio. Professor Jane Taylor, who is Mellon Senior Research Mentor at the University of the Western Cape and Visiting Professor at the University of Chicago, is one of this dozen.
Here the layers begin: Cardenio is a character in Cervantes’ novel, Don Quixote, and Cervantes, credited with being, along with Shakespeare the father of English literature, was Shakespeare’s contemporary. They both happened to die on the same date although ten days apart (Spain, where Cervantes died, had a different calendar to England in the 17th Century).
Incorporating puppetry and visual art, Taylor has set the play in Oxford, 1650, the year in which Descartes died, and used the story of Anne Greene, who was hanged for the murder of her infant in that year, as narrative ballast.
In a period during which the mists of superstition were barely lifting to allow science a clear path for progress, Anne Greene’s body was handed over for medical study but happened to come alive while on the dissecting table. Rich pickings for a story indeed.
The choice of representing Anne Greene as a puppet – designed by sculpture Professor Gavin Younge – yet simultaneously played by the bewitching Jemma Khan, is puzzling at times, but makes sense in light of Taylor’s explanation that the work explores numerous “dialogues”, one of them being the dialogue between body and soul – a subject that Descartes spent his life thinking about.
Khan, representing Greene’s soul, Is superb. Her performance threatened to outshine Rouxnet Brown and Dylan Esbach who played the doctors, despite them being more than capable in their roles. Even the effervescent, forceful Jeroen Kranenburg, who plays the town crier and Don Quixote, does not equal her here.
Perhaps it’s due to the prominence of the character she’s given to play, but whether delivering lines in the cadence of 17th Century speech or responding to them, it was Khan who offered us the most captivating moments of this play. As a result there were periods where the puppet and handler, the sublime Marty Kintu, were non-entities merely taking up space on stage as they waited for their cue.
One could follow this as a line of criticism but the intellectual and, dare I say it, post-modern, nature of the play (with it’s own meta-textual scene) means everything becomes a signifier, including the seemingly redundant presence of Anne’s near lifeless body held by Kintu as Khan commands our gaze like a kindly guide leading us through a hall of mirrors.
It is this very intellectual nature of the play that has you grasping at one element, only to touch another, keeping you turning corners until you end up back at the point where you ask yourself: ‘why am I here? Why am I watching this?’ The simplest answer being: ‘because I’m enjoying it.’
Which means at the very least it makes you think, and keeps you thinking long afterwards.
Yet After Cardenio is no mere intellectual exercise, it manages to satisfy the desire to be transported. It manages to stir emotion, albeit abstractly, by accessing the heart through the gateway of the mind.
The newly renovated Anatomy Theatre in UCT’s Old Medical Building on Hiddingh campus also contributes its to the success of the play, almost threatening to make it a site specific work.
The space is impressive. Precariously steep, it was designed to give medical students a near-as-possible birds-eye-view of the hidden, somewhat sacred, inner workings of the human body. It is the perfect venue to stage a play themed around Anne Greene’s resurrection.
Being that the play is presented in association with the UCT-based Gordon Institute of Performing Arts, there is a further dissection occurring in the Anatomy Theatre, one that allows us to examine some of the thinking occurring within the often hidden depths of performing arts academia.
Like Anne Greene, this body appears very much alive, pulsing with ideas and creative output. — Steve Kretzmann
After Cardenio runs until September 2, after which it becomes part of the Out The Box Festival until September 5. Tickets cost R80 and can be booked through Computicket.