The Centre for the Less Good Idea, To What End

William Kentridge
The Centre for the Less Good Idea
The Pit, Barbican

The Centre for the Less Good Idea, To What End, The Weep of the Whips Credit: Jemima Young

Six short pieces of dance, music and theatre spill out in a stream of palpable passion tonight, distilling the spirit of South Africa through sound, movement and angst.

The inspiration comes from a project conceived by South African artist William Kentridge, who at the same time has a major retrospective over at The Royal Academy, London. The man behind the Johannesburg-based performance lab The Centre for the Less Good Idea (from a Tswana proverb: “If the good doctor can’t cure you, find the less good doctor”) tells us before the show that artists are encouraged to “follow their impulses rather than create with an audience in mind.”

Seen for the first time outside of South Africa, such sentiments are evident in an outpouring of work where impulses run high and raw emotions hover close to the surface. All six pieces feel improvisational, but such expansiveness with rough edges allow for provocative and visceral imagery to take root.

In Thulisile Binda’s The Weep of the Whips, the artist uses a leather sjambok to mark out her territory—an abhorrent relic from apartheid-era policing. Whips crack on the bare stage as a lone dancer snarls and slides to and fro, all viperous snake ready to pounce, but then finds stillness, gazing out to the audience, a female warrior who commands the space as if ready for battle.

Another performer, Micca Manganye, emerges from the darkness and the two fight it out in a whip-led power struggle expressing pain, fear and control, but ending in fierce embrace. It’s a troubling and powerful work with striking visuals and terrifying sound as the whip violently thwacks the ground and Binda contorts her body around it, as if in relationship with the whip itself.

Fortitude and strength up against the brutality of apartheid seeps into all creative work tonight, while as a metaphor for corrupt bureaucratic systems, office paperwork features as a recurring theme. We see a cacophony of typewriters where performers tap the keyboard with their feet, raising sound to symphonic levels while typing in a physically repetitive action that transmits a sense of confinement.

Then, in Commission Continua, performer Tony Bonani Miyambo is literally buried under a pile of mindless day-to-day paper trails that spiral into tragedy as the lists move from petty politics to the voices of the murdered and oppressed. The tension builds when filing and photocopying is abruptly drawn to a halt in an unpredicted outburst of anger and pain. It is a moving portrayal of a man swamped by his surroundings.

The lament for the victims of the 2012 Marikana Massacre is an all-women performance that pays homage to the widows of 34 miners shot dead by the South African Police Service during a wildcat strike. It is an achingly elegiac and potent mix of traditional mourning song, with odd props like wellington boots thrown in to enliven the tale of despair and loss. Although the narrative thread is abstract, this is no matter as song has the power to evoke deep wells of emotion for the lost lives.

To What End is a personal and moving account from local artists who draw on folklore, politics and the music of South Africa to create a wholly transporting experience, truly recognising that the human spirit is unbreakable even under the most brutal of regimes.

Reviewer: Rachel Nouchi