Theatre review Covid Moons directed by Clare Stopford, premiered November 2020, RATA, Riebeek Kasteel, South Africa

What: Covid Moons Director: Clare Stopford  writer: Clare Stopford with contributions Khathu Ramabulana  
Featuring on stage: Sipumziwe Licwaba, Nicol Steyn and Charl Clayton (musician busker) Video calls on screen: See below Premiered: November 2020 at RATA, Riebeek Kasteel Next season of the play: TBA Info about Covid Moons: Clare Stopford by e-mail

Clare Stopford’s new play Covid Moons opened on November 20, 2020, at The Royal Arts Town Amphitheatre (RATA), Riebeek Kasteel. I was overwhelmed after watching this intense comedic drama in the beautiful outdoor setting – under the stars at RATA – on the grounds of The Royal Hotel. Stopford wrote the play (with contributions from Khathu Ramabulana) to cheer herself up and stop “going mad”, in the isolation during hard lockdown, during Covid-19. [See interview link, below]. After watching the play, I felt a sense of release and catharsis. Covid Moons is tender, poignant, funny and ultimately hopeful and posits the possibility of connecting – even when barriers seem insurmountable. I loved this play; loved watching and being immersed in the action, because that is what it feels like, watching at RATA, sitting around the amphitheatre stage.

In Covid Moons, two young people – Lufuno (Sipumziwe Licwaba) and Magda (Nicol Steyn) meet through the divide between their up-market living spaces, during lockdown. Lufuno is in Cape Town, for a job interview and then he is stuck when lockdown clicks in to place. Magda is a free spirit with Wiccan aspirations, who is resisting the pull of going ‘home’ to her dad. They are both ensconced in their little bubbles. Within each bubble, there are conversations via video calls, with people from their respective homes– family, friends and associates. 

Covid Moons is a deftly crafted play, with a deeply considered narrative, which references not only the Covid situation but which makes potent use of the modes of communication that have emerged during lockdown- the video call – on Zoom and other platforms. There are three performers – principal protagonists – Lufuno and Magda and a busker musician (played by Charl Clayton) who prowls the edges of the performance arena. Mark Graham-Wilson’s design of scaffolding – contains and demarcates space.  It is almost like dotted lines – which suggest walls – which one can look through – a liminal space- which blurs stage space with the surroundings. The scaffolding (painted with metallic paint to allude to the glossy up-market accommodation that these young people inhabit), imbues the piece with a sense of magical realism. We can move through walls, through the power of the mind and imagination. The barriers are there and not there.

The onstage characters –physically present actors – are joined by a cast of virtual protagonists. The virtual cast is beamed into the narrative by smart phone video call, projected onto a screen. All up that makes up a cast of 11: Three on stage, a virtual cast of eight and puppets which are perhaps a bridge between the physical, virtual and emotional. The musician provides a soundtrack to what occurs in front of us. It is music of celebration and lament – gratitude and a howl at the same time.

Within interlocking narratives between Lufuno and Magda and their video call chats, there is a play within a play –with Lufuno and Magda – manipulating puppets.  It is a Shakespearean play – Pyrramus and Thisbe- from a Midsummer Summer’s Night Dream. Stopford reflects: “It’s a Romeo and Juliet story in that they are separated by a wall.” Yes, these young people are separated but they soon find connections and the puppets become a bridge, a proxy, in the meantime. The ‘look’ of the delightful puppets (design and construction by Merryn Carver) is Anime, says Stopford. Stopford briefed Carver to design puppets, made up of re-purposed materials that Magda would find in her home and kitchen. Stopford: “That is what Magda is doing. She is just using stuff in the flat to come up with these characters: Anime meets Shakespeare.” The puppets are fun and quirky and we have needed fun and quirky in the time of Covid. The puppets tap into the wonderful humour in the script and the contemporary voice that Stopford (working with Khathu Ramabulana) has nailed through the dialogue. It is very much now- the argot that become part of the pandemic times.

Watching this play at the end of November, we were in a relatively stable phase of Covid – with infection rates seemingly under control. We shrieked with laughter at the references to sanitising which seemed extreme – gazing back at how we were in hard-lockdown. However, as I write December 2020, with a surge in South Africa, it is not so funny. Shortly after seeing this play, the infection rates started to climb and I was rushing to see as many productions as possible, before the possibility of venues shutting down, so apologies for the delay in writing about this deeply considered play. I needed time to mull on what I had seen. I did not want to simply write about a ‘Covid play’, staged under the stars in the pandemic. The setting is enchanting – breath-taking to sit in the amphitheatre – but the play on its own is a powerful piece of theatre – which is spliced and diced with the personal and communal -with two individuals transcending the confines of their situation – through creativity, imagination and dreaming. The actors Sipumziwe Licwaba and Nicol Steyn are terrific. Stopford auditioned them during Zoom rehearsals – which is freaky – but that is how it has been with the pandemic. The synergy between the actors was great and it is difficult to imagine that this play was staged during lockdown and its challenges. Licwaba was diagnosed with Covid, during rehearsals which put off the opening from the scheduled date. I was amazed to hear that this is the first major professional role in a theatre play for Licwaba. He is a veteran of improvisation and works in commercials (it pays better than live performance) and has his own recording studio. His voice is like a character on its own- ladled with the droll mirth of this self-possessed man who is flummoxed by the pandemic. It is what one might describe as a delicious voice by a theatre maker who oozes charisma and presence.

Voice is integral to Covid Moons – the on stage actors and the voices of those who are not present because of lockdown. Stopford has brilliantly constructed a virtual through the use of video call on smart phone. This potently references the way we have communicated through this strange year through but beyond the device, a chorus hovers; like in a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy. The video calls were recorded in rehearsal with the on-stage actors’ saying their lines and then cuing in the virtual cast. Voice and visual footage was recorded and is played, on cue, on stage. There is a sense of it occurring in ‘real time’ but it has been all pre-recorded and filmed- and put together seamlessly by Stopford in the director’s seat. Imagine, doing sound checks during Covid, in an outdoor venue. Stopford and team pulled it off- very impressive. Covid Moons wrestles with specifics of the strict regulations in South Africa (all that frenetic sanitizing in hard lockdown and home-crafting of masks); the physical and emotional landscape and the pandemic but it is also a relationship story: The hinge between Lufuno and Magda; their back stories – splayed out on screen on video call.

Covid Moons is a co-production between Clare Stopford and RATA. I hope that this play – with these actors – is staged again at RATA. It will hopefully be staged at other festivals. RATA’s season continues until end April 2021. It is a gift to watch theatre in this magnificent venue during Covid when it may be tricky to sit in confined theatre spaces – particularly for people with comprised health. Covid Moons sold out. Book as soon as the 2021 RATA programme is announced. Stay the night and combine theatre and travel. When Covid Moons pops up – at RATA –or another venue – do not miss this intriguing piece of theatre which holds up a compelling mirror to navigating relationships within these strange days of the pandemic – with the “deferred” touch, the “deferred kiss”; the ubiquitous video call and how that continuously directs and diverts our gaze. Ultimately this play speaks to me about displacement because of the way Covid and lockdown has interrupted our lives but at the same time, it is play about containment within the tenuous framework of scaffolding which may be temporary but it provides stability and grounding.

Covid Moons – production credits -cast 

Written and directed: by Clare Stopford with contributions by Khathu Ramabulana  

Magda: Nicol Steyn
Lufuno: Simpumziwe Luqwaba
Homeless busker musician: Charl Clayton  

Lufuno’s Ma (on video call): Sylvia Mngxekeza 
Derek (on video call): Sanda Shandu
Martine (on video call): Clare Stopford
Magda’s Pa (on video call): Marcel van Heerden
Nomusa (on video call): Zandile Madliwa
Hilda (on video call): Kelly Jeffery
Magda’s ouma (on video call): Antoinette Kellerman
Trevor (on video call): Alistair Davis

Covid Moons – creative team

Set: Mark Graham Wilson Lighting design: Clare Stopford
Puppet design and construction:
Merryn Carver
Choreographer: Jackie Manyephelo 

Video assemblage: Mathew Muller Set construction: Sarel Meyer Furniture supplied by: ROES   Technical advisor: Kobus Rossouw Stage director: Namhla Kalipa-Tunyiswa Stage manager: Jon Wreal Lighting operator: Zahier Abrahams Sound operator: Lee-Hagan Wilschutte AV operator: James Makoto Stage crew: Jay Gordon-Turner   Publicity: Yvette Puchert Social Media: Maggie Gerieke   ROYAL ARTS TOWN AMPHITHEATRE Director: Mark Graham-Wilson  
ARTS TOWN RIEBEEK VALLEY Founder: Klaus Piprek  

Featured image credit: Lara Scott. Supplied.

Supporting the arts: RATA is grateful from the support that it has received from BASA- Business Arts South Africa. #chooselive