Review: Sophie Joans’ Île is a spark in the dark -magical and lyrical storytelling theatre – Gold Standard Bank Ovation Award at National Arts Festival 2022

Sophie Jones’ Île is a spirited spark in the dark, with enthralling comedic storytelling. Île is an evocation of the six months which Joans spent on the island of Mauritius, as part of her gap year, when she was 18. The maternal side of her family is from Mauritius. Île is peppered with stories which conjures up vivid portraits of her family, especially her mom (who lives in Cape Town) and her great Mauritian aunt (she hosted Joans on the island). Île is about family – personal and political (including Mauritius and its dubious past- lumped with colonialism and slavery); identity, belonging and growth. Joans fires up the stage in thus poignant coming of teen-hood story- funny, elegiac- with quirky images such as a lava lamp. It is beautiful theatre – with Joans as a vital entity, igniting the stage. Île was awarded a Gold Standard Bank Ovation Award at National Arts Festival 2022 (at a ceremony, held on July 2, 2022). Joans is planning a Cape Town season of Île in August 2022 (venue to be announced) and hopefully the show will be picked up by producers. It is a deliciously captivating piece of theatre.

I saw the first version of Île, online at vNAF 2021 (on the fringe at the National Arts Festival, which was streamed virtually) and was charmed by Joans’ immersive storytelling – using the screen as a medium for performance. That nascent Île, was filmed in her lounge, with a painted map (“set design 0.1 by Ethan Goldberg”, she quips). Direction was by Richard White. For NAF 2022, Joans has worked with director Rob van Vuuren for a live theatrical incarnation.  Comedy and stand-up comedy elements have been heightened, together with knockout physical comedy, astute use of props (wooden cubes) and activation of the stage space.

For me, Île embodies the life-force of the National Arts Festival, Makhanda, South Africa, in nurturing live performance during the pandemic and lockdowns. Joans could not perform to an audience in attendance, so she filmed the first iteration of Île and bolstered by the enthusiastic response, she developed the show for the stage. If NAF had not gone online and made that platform available, Île may not have been here, live on stage. Sure, artists continued creating in the pandemic but the virtual NAF [2020 and 2021] provided artists with an audience – beyond friends and family – socially distanced in a domestic space. Virtual NAF served more than a place holder. It was a performance space and with Île, we see the results this tender piece of comedic dramatic theatre.

When I say that Joans is “a spark in the dark” and I am not only referring to her bubbly energy but I am also referencing her production company, Spark in the Dark. She explains: “The company was formed in response to the darkness that came over SA’s theatre and performance industry since the pandemic. Our mission is to foster creative connections through live shows, workshops and events. Along with comedy shows, we host Play Things (experimental theatre space) and several other events to make space for new voices.” Joans IS a spark in the dark and she is gathering flames of creativity around her. It took tremendous determination to get to the Fringe at NAF 2022 (she drove to Makhanda, from Cape Town and combined resources with other artists, working on a shoe-string budget). When the festival was arranged, venues could only be ticketed at 50% capacity. This deterred many artists, in trekking to Makhanda as the prospect of making any money was dismal. As it happens, on the day the festival opened, the mask mandate was scrapped and it was open season for full houses. The dampener was that artists had to contend with loadshedding and this was challenging for those performing at venues, without generators. Joans with her tremendous vooma was a spark in the dark: Lighting up the stage with Île and boosting others, that she collaborated with, on her platform, Spark in the Dark. Go and see Île, at a theatre near you. It is uplifting, funny and inspiring. The show reverberates in terms of our families (especially our mothers) our relationships, the stories we cherish, tell and embrace.  Île is emblematic of the resilience and creativity of artists like Joans who have continued to make potent theatre- and who are taking screen incarnations of theatre to the stage.

Magical and lyrical storytelling theatre. Sophie Joans in Île. She received a Gold Standard Bank Ovation Award, for the production, at National Arts Festival 2022. Pic: Aman Bloom. Supplied.

✳Pics by Aman Bloom. Supplied.