Theatre review: Love! Valour! Compassion! – seminal play reverberates intensely in the current pandemic- production by South Africa’s Lefra Productions
|What: Love! Valour! Compassion! the Tony Award winning play by Terrence McNally|
Where: Artscape Opera House
When: February 1-12, 2022 – Tuesdays to Saturdays at 6.30pm and Saturday matinees at 2.30pm
Duration: 2hrs 20 min
Booking link: https://tickets.computicket.com/event/love_valour_compassion_/4273621
Group bookings: Call 011 815 3000 or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
Age advisory: No under 16s – nudity and sexual situations on-stage
Producer: Frans Swart of Lefra Productions https://www.lovevalour.co.za/
This week, [Wednesday night, February 2, 2022], I was privileged to see, on stage, at Artscape in Cape Town, Love! Valour! Compassion!, the Tony Award winning play by Terrence McNally. There was a resounding and appreciative standing ovation by the socially distanced audience, masked up in the pandemic of Covid. There we were, during the pandemic, year three, watching McNally’s seminal play, which hinges around eight gay men in the mid-90s in America, endeavouring to live with love, valour and compassion as the AIDs pandemic surges around them. The scope of the play is epic and tragic; hectic and harrowing; inspiring and heart-warming. The friend group of men gather at a home, near New York, over three summer public holiday weekends [Memorial Day, Fourth of July and Labour Day]. They process their dreams, concerns, fears (lots of fears – AIDS was on the boil) thoughts, and relationship issues. Throughout there is onstage canoodling and nudity. The play premiered in the USA in 1994, Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club and then transferred to Broadway. It won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1995. In 1994, nudity may have been a biggie. This was before the advent of Social Media – Instagram, TikTok. In 2022, on stage nudity is a side bar and in this production, the narratives are what makes the play tick and not the state of undress. The producers say that the play is ultimately about friendship and I would agree with that. It is about connecting with each other and ultimately being hopeful- having some fun – dancing and singing together. It is an extraordinary undertaking for Lefra Productions, an independent South African theatre company to be presenting a play with seven actors in a large venue, with a limited number of people due do lockdown restrictions. [The seven actors play eight characters. There are twin characters which makes the doubling up possible].
Aids pandemic as centrepiece
The centrepiece of the play is the Aids pandemic and the fear of the disease –death and how one continues to have relationships and get away from the madness in this house with all its possibilities of normalcy and adventure. People were dying and there was no vaccine. There still isn’t. According to https://ourworldindata.org/hiv-aids, the “number of AIDS-related deaths increased throughout the 1990s and reached a peak in 2005, 2006 when in both years close to 2 million people died.” Of course, we are now in the Covid pandemic. McNally was writing in the 90s and reflecting the zeitgeist of his time. He had no idea that another pandemic was coming our way – which would shut down the industry he loved. He lost two life partners to AIDS. McNally died in March 2020 – of Covid – one of the first high profile stars to succumb to Covid- in the USA. He was 81. One wonders if he would have written Love! Valour! Compassion! – the Covid edition.
Musical theatre – a passion point of LVC
The other central thread of the play is musical theatre. Most of the protagonists are immersed in the musical theatre industry. Their love and passion for musicals is a compelling leitmotif of the play. The host of the house, Gregory, is an aging choreographer. Others are involved in the industry and are obsessed with musical theatre. It is sobering to consider that the musical theatre industry came to a grinding halt in the pandemic. The industry is reviving in the USA, parts of Europe and elsewhere but in South Africa, with lockdown restrictions in place, it is not likely that we will see big musicals on stage, for a long time. This is my first viewing of the play, although I have seen snippets of the film –such as the famous Swan Lake scene – we will get to that – so for me-the musical theatre thread is what gripped me as I watched this group of people who LOVE musicals and theatre in general. It is their calling. During the past two years, many creatives have not only lost their income streams but have not had an outlet to express themselves. If I had been watching LVC, prior to the pandemic, my reception would have probably been focussed on watching the play as a period piece of male relationship drama in the mid-90s. For me, it was an intensely poignant experience, watching these humans who made their life around musical theatre.
Accents and production design
The cast of this production by Lefra Productions is brilliant in keeping the accents together – a mélange of American accents and some British accents. This production opened in November 2021, in Johannesburg at The Market Theatre. A reviewer commented that some of the accents slipped. They are not slipping in the Cape Town February 2022 production. My plus-one could not believe that these are South African actors. It takes time for productions to gel and unfortunately in South Africa, we often do not have the luxury of time for companies to develop and fine tune performances. Director Gregg Pettigrew has done a sterling job in texturing the characters with voices which are informed by accents which heighten the backstories of each protagonist. I loved the set design- a stack of white cubes. Each cube is moved out at the start of the play as the stack is dismantled. The cubes demarcate each scene and frame the action. At the end, the cubes are slotted in together. At times, we could not hear some of the dialogue. This is because of nudity, which means that the actors cannot be miked up. Lefra is using “rifle mics” on stage- to amplify the voices. We saw one of the preview performances. The sound issue is being addressed.
The play is lengthy – over two hours. One needs to concentrate on every word but it is worth it. I have become accustomed to watching recordings of stage productions. The bonus is that one can re-wind to catch dialogue that one has missed or wants to hear again. I wanted to do that with LVC. There are many delicious lines and in a wordy text like this, one cannot digest everything. In a scene, there is a reference to someone who is kibitzing. What is a ‘kibitz’? The answer provided: “It is a place where old Jewish people go.” [Kibitzing means looking over someone’s; shoulder, interfering, nagging. A kibbutz is a collective farm-fabulous word-play by McNally]. There are a lot of America-isms and we cannot possibly get it all. In terms of length, as with many licensed texts, Lefra Productions was not permitted to trim the script and make the production shorter, so yes it is long but in my opinion, it is essential viewing. LVC put gay relationships into a big play, in the mainstream, on Broadway and was a beacon for others to follow suit.
Swan Lake – the LVC state of mind
Plot spoiler alert but it is in the publicity photos, so not much of a spoiler alert: I love the famous LVC Swan Lake scene. This is when some of the protagonists put on tutus and go into ballerina mode. They are rehearsing an interlude from Swan Lake – the ballet- for an AIDS benefit. It is beautiful to watch – their focus and precision and then the ensemble becomes laced with comedy and drag. This is then heightened with pathos as we hear voice-overs as the protagonists declare their futures – who will live and who will die –and how. They are celebrating themselves; teasing out the mirth so essential to their existence and also mourning their younger selves. It is a mesmerising scene which I have previously only seen in the film version of the play [1997 film was directed by Joe Mantello]. It is thrilling to see LVC on stage in South Africa –a revival of a so called gay themed AIDS era play –and how it resonates now – in the current pandemic. Bravo to Lefra Productions for securing the rights to this important play and for presenting an epic scale production [seven in the cast, as we have mentioned and the creative team], in the time of the Covid pandemic. Go and watch and become immersed in the lives of eight humans as they live their lives with love, valour and compassion.
✳ Pics by Julius Bekker. Supplied. Related coverage on TheCapeRobyn: https://thecaperobyn.co.za/on-stage-love-valour-compassion-award-winning-play-by-terrence-mcnally-on-tour-in-south-africa/