Interviews Audience with a sweating, snot-flying monster

Audience with a sweating, snot-flying monster

Lionel Newton knocks back a Black Label, takes a long draw from a cigarette, and walks onto a spare stage of St Andrew’s Hall. All through his startlingly good turn as Eddie du Pisanie, a 49-year-old Witbank man entangled in the wreckage of his unresolved biography, Newton slakes his thirst from the beer bottle. It is not just gritty characterisation that prompts Newtown to use this prop. Contained in Paul Slabolepszy’s story of a disillusioned man confronting the truths of his youth is a very physical performance. By the end of his hour-long performance in this abridged version of the 1992 original, Newton is sweating profusely. A beer and the occasional cigarette on stage, hell, why not?

“It’s Monster juice,” Newton corrects me after the show. In Slab’s script for The Return of Elvis du Pisane, adds Newton, the veteran actor and playwright recommended Lucozade.

Actor Lionel Newton is in The Return of Elvis Du Pisanie showing at the St Andrew's Hall in Grahamstown for the 2015 National Arts Festival. (Photo: Hlumela Mkabile)

Actor Lionel Newton is in The Return of Elvis Du Pisanie showing at the St Andrew’s Hall in Grahamstown for the 2015 National Arts Festival. (Photo: Hlumela Mkabile)

“It’s really difficult for me,” continues Newton, whose credits include productions with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a recent stint under the direction of Sylvaine Strike, and a slew of films. “I don’t know how it is for other actors, but acting for me is a completely unnatural thing. I should have been a plumber.”

His riff culminates in a complaint about the erratic programming of his one-hander. When I see Newton sweat and spit and mime and growl his way through Slab’s script, it is just the other side of noon: hardly ideal for a full-on assault of Highveld existentialism.

“It fucks my mind up,” says Newton. “I’m used to having a run of a show and kicking off at 8.15pm. You have the whole day to prepare – to allow the Boeing to take off.” But, he concedes, that’s how the cookie crumbled.

Mostly, though, we talk about writing. Unavoidably Barney Simon, whose Born in the RSA has been revived by Newton’s former partner, Lara Foot, comes up. “Barney always used to say to me that good theatre is about how we affect each other.”

The Return of Elvis du Pisane certainly achieves this. At its climax, an audience member next to me raised her hands to her face in horror as the raw emotion spilt out of Eddie.

Simon’s influence is palpable in The Return of Elvis du Pisane, particularly in the fine grain of its language and Slab’s attentiveness to the cadence of white working-class English.

“Paul was highly influenced by Barney,” says Newton, who is full of praise for Slab the playwright. “People have this perception of him as being this beer boytjie, a rugger bugger with Bill Flynn, bless his soul. He is so not that – Paul only has one beer at parties.”

After mining a necessary seam of nostalgia, our conversation turns to the present.

“I’m not seeing enough young theatre-makers reflecting the frustrations and the complications and the celebrations of what it is like to be a young South African in this very strange, bruised Botticelli of miracle that we live in. I’m not seeing whities saying on stage, ‘Fuck, I’m a white boy and I can’t find a job.’ The struggle continues in this country, on so many levels.”

Sean O’Toole
Cue co-editor

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