William Kentridge's Confessions of Zeno at Spier
by Sue Williamsont
One of the reasons artist William Kentridge first started working with the Handspring Puppet Company under Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler was because his hand drawn charcoal animations for film took so long to make. With the interspersed action of puppets, the action of a play could be moved on so much faster. From the first collaboration, Woyzeck on the Highveld (1992), each new production has mutated and grown, increasing in complexity and depth. Confessions of Zeno, shown at Documenta XI in Kassel last year, is the fifth.
To describe the stage setup: A large screen fills the centre third of the stage, set about half way back. To the right of this, a shoulder high platform of wide planks with some low hedge-like cutouts suggesting receding vistas of landscape is set just behind and at a 90 degree angle to the screen. This is the arena for the puppets. Gone are the wooden figures carved by Kohler to Kentridge's designs, replaced instead by bronzes cast by the artist from cardboard cutouts and found objects and operated by the puppeteers from below by moving rods attached to the puppets' feet.
The puppets' ancestry seems most Kentridgean - a reworking of the familiar characters - the portly behatted and raincoated man of middle years who keeps his head down to avoid looking the world in the eye; a female shape like a classic figurehead on a ship's prow whose nether limbs appear to be derived from the pylons that stride across the Gauteng highveld. As the puppeteers escort their charges up and down between the channels, the figures are videoed and appear instantly and much enlarged as moving silhouettes in the tradition of shadow puppetry on the central screen. Depending on how close to the camera the puppet is, extraordinarily dramatic switches in scale are achieved.
When not occupied by the parading puppets, the screen comes alive with a rich palimpsest of projected drawn images of ledgers, buildings, fountains, cast iron fence detailing, a pacing panther. Filmed images of luxuriant clouds of cigarette smoke highlight one of the central obsessions of Zeno, at the beginning of the play, lounging on a bed set in front of the screen: "I promised my wife to stop smoking at 2 p.m," he says, immediately recounting all the other such promises made over the years. As he speaks, the dates appear on the screen, and the play is on.
Kentridge was drawn to Italian modernist Italo Svevo's 1923 novel as the source of this adaptation by a sense of its setting, Trieste, being "a rather desperate provincial city at the end of an empire - away from the centre, the real world. This felt very similar to Johannesburg in the 1970s". It is in this setting that Zeno, played with consummate skill by Kentridge favourite Dawid Minnaar, struggles ineffectually with his very human failings, like trying to give up smoking, or deciding whether he wishes to leave his wife Augusta (soprano Lwazi Ncube) for his mistress Carla (soprano Pumeza Matshikiza). Or not. The fourth member of the (live acting) cast is Otto Maidi, Zeno's father, who plays a funny and most convincing death scene.
It is an extraordinarily difficult task to pull off such a complex mix of projected images, opera, and live actors, but Kentridge is more than up to it. Supported by his creative comrades, he has produced a rich, intriguing and always entertaining piece of theatre that comments profoundly on the human condition. The multi-talented Jane Taylor has written this adaptation, Kevin Volans is the composer, basing his music on an eclectic variety of sources and the Sontonga quartet provide the music.
Zeno played for three performances in February in the outdoor theatre at the Spier Wine Estate, near Cape Town. Agitate to have it brought to a venue near you.