Woolworths (not the store –a choral satirical play): review

Writer and director: Juliet Jenkin

Company: Wynand Ferreira, Alice De Beer, Alicia McCormick, Kaylee McIlroy, Francesco Nassimbeni, Tazmé Pillay and Johann Vermaak

“Please can I live in Woolworths.” This is the declaration at the start of the play, by one of the protagonist-figures in Juliet Jenkin’s fantastical satirical tableaux. It is exhilarating theatre- packed with vivid images of yearning, loss, celebration, dislocation.

Yup, I also want to live in Woolworths. We all want to live there. We will happily swipe our loyalty cards at Woolworths – the store. We have no problem with saving the rhinos (as deliciously evoked by Jenkin in the play). From my side, the loyalty system continues to flummox me and Jenkin feeds into that.   Will we actually get cash back, ever?  We have our gates and booms but to quote from Jenkin, “will we be safe in our African Dream? There is “jasmine in the razor wire.” There is.  Makes the razor wire smell sweet.

Woolworths is a choral satire with narrative elements but without a linear narrative. It is a piece which coils around itself and which goes in a myriad of directions. It is a piece which could so easily be unfathomable. The brilliance of Jenkin is that through impeccable craft and precision, choreographing each element (dialogue, movement, gesture) she has constructed a piece of theatre which is astounding. By nature of its choral verse format and bricolage of image, words, movement, the piece could have easily become a mission for the viewer to decode. As with Woolworths, the store, Woolworths, The Choral Satire is a pleasure.

Woolworths, The Choral Satire is laugh out loud funny; entertaining, immersive; visceral theatre. For 50 minutes, one is on a superhighway, gutted with images such as trellidoors, golf, mountain biking, investment banking, cricket, pool, whisky tasting, wine farming. We are racing across Africa with the chorus on stage as our tour guides. At the end of it all, we want to be safe but what does that mean and entail as we duck behind the gates and booms of designated areas “of middle class aspiration.”

You may be reading this and wondering, if this play is about Woolworths: Woollies- the store. Yes and no. Jenkin reflects: “The title Woolworths is about a landscape of middle class aspiration and aesthetics which associate with Woolworths: Woollies and what it means; not only practically and materially but what it means for people in terms of a sense of identity; a sense of familiarity; where part of their identity and what they consume – comes from. The word Woolworths is really symbolic- rather than it is set in Woolworths, with people unpacking in the aisles or complaining. Woolworths is a symbol. It is not a narrative play. There is some stuff about Woolworths in the play; but it is not a critique about the actual shop or the brand.”

For me, Jenkin evokes Wooloworths as a state of mind. In this regard, Billy Joel’s song New York State of Mind (released 1976), pinged for me as I watched Woolworths. Beyond being a physical entity, Woollies conjures up a state of mind for us South Africans. The store – specifically Woolworths Food – is incomparable to anything I have seen abroad. Whole Foods in the US? Nah. Sainsbury’s or Waitrose in the UK? Nope. Our Woolworths speaks volumes of who we are; it epitomises great merchandising; what we dream to be; how we measure ourselves as we stand in the express till line; looking into other people’s baskets. The air-conditioning blasts us and keeps us awake; alert; on the lookout for buy three and save 20 percent (what does that even mean?).  Next Customer Please: that crooning female voice. We step up to the till and swipe and each swipe will save the rhinos, “one Americano at a time,” as Jenkin’s effigies croon.

At the end of the day, we must ask as one of Jenkin’s choristers poses “Who will take me by the hand and tell me that it will be okay?” That is the question that all of us taking “the moral high ground” must ponder as we meander through the aisles as we reach out to “our followers”.

Woolworths by Juliet Jenkin is an impeccably constructed dramatic work which entertains as it grapples with our loyalties, thoughts and ideas as we huddle in the scrum. Jenkin’s writing is laced with colour, image, idea. You want to taste each word – like you would at the sampling stations at Woollies – and savour – and have more. Beyond the hilarity, it is a densely packed satire, oozing and choking on itself; this body of privilege, dreams, aspirational fable; scenes we want to insert ourselves into.

This is an astounding theatrical experience. Extraordinary writing. Extraordinary direction. Superb cast. They are the wide eyed chorus – some with red lips – a bit clownish; somewhat like dummies, as they chant, chorale us to gaze into Woolworths.


Image credit: Peter Bruyns

About Woolworths- Choral Satire and its writer Juliet Jenkin

Award winning theatre maker Juliet Jenkin was born in Johannesburg. She has a BA in Theatre and Performance from UCT. She is currently [February 2020], a PhD candidate at the Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies at UCT. 

Jenkin talks about the play, Woolworths:

“Woolworths was first staged in 2017 at the UCT Arena Theatre as part of my Masters degree – that was at the end of 2017. Then we were at The National Arts Festival 2018 and then we were at Theatre Arts Admin Collective after the NAF and then the play was on at the Woordfees, last year [March 2019].

This season at The Courtyard Playhouse is the 4th staging of the play. It has gone from being a ‘large venue play’ in terms of choreography and staging and being a ‘small venue play’ at The Courtyard Playhouse.

The Masters was by coursework: you create a practical work and develop research through it and connected to it over the two years. I was looking at the chorus as a patterning device or an approach to theatre- making through the use of embodied patterns, and reflecting on socio- cultural patterns or symbols as part of social identity(for example the rugby scrum) and how these can be created or mirrored in the performance space through pattern and chorus. Basically it was about chorus as vehicle for comment on socio-cultural pattern and identity.

When I first staged the work I tried to direct it in a way that the spoken and physical texts were equally active in creating the language of the play. So in the previous venues the play was very definitely a work of physical as well as vocal theatre. 

At Woordfees especially, the stage was so large that the play took on a kind of stadium quality which gave a very strong sense of the epic and heightened possibilities of the work.

 In The Courtyard Playhouse the smaller space has meant the vocal or scripted language really leads the play, and the physical language is in more of a supporting role. The intimacy of the space also meant that a lot of the formations that the play previously worked with weren’t effective any more. So I reduced the scope of the physical work and took out a lot of the more abstract movements which I think has actually improved the play in terms of its accessibility. As a larger more physically abstract work it was I think a bit overwhelming in parts. The smaller venue has focused it, and focussed the cast’s relationship to the piece and to each other in performance.”

Theatre/travel advisory: Woolworths at The Courtyard Playhouse

Dates: Until February 29, 2020. Some performances are at 7pm and others at 9pm. Check website for details.

Show duration: about 55 minutes

Tickets: R150

Online booking: direct booking link: https://courtyardplayhouse-ct.co.za/show/WW/

Book by phone: 021 300 1652 (bar is busy so may take a while to answer)

Woolworths – the play by Juliet Jenkin – performance history

UCT Arena, 2017

National Arts Festival Fringe, 2018

Theatre Arts Admin Collective, Cape Town, 2018

Woordfees, Stellenbosch, 2019