SAVE THE PEDESTALS. Based on a story by Ivan Vladislavić. Choreographed and directed by Robin Orlyn. Idea, concept and co-ordination by Torsten Mass. Dramaturgy and play development by Francesca Spinazzi and Andreas Hillger. With Mmakgosi Tsogang Kgabi, Lambert Mousseka Ntumba, Franziska Rattay, Ivana Sajevic and Nico Parisius. A Halle Puppet Theatre/Handspring Puppet Company/Baxter production. Baxter.

KAREN RUTTER reviews

The transient character of most political systems and political leaders reflects the ephemeral nature of those deciding who has the power. There’s always the possibility of being knocked off a pedestal. It may take longer, in some cases (ciao, Robert Mugabe) – but things generally change.

It’s parts of this that get explored in Save the Pedestals, a new theatre production based on a short story by South African author Ivan Vladislavić. He, in turn, was inspired by Polish writer and poet Stanislaw Lec: “When destroying monuments, save the pedestals.” They’re always going to be used again. Just with something different perched on top.

In this fantastical, dream-like production, two old struggle comrades wander the streets of Jo’burg, encountering statues which have become redundant. Ma Z and Comrade A, as they are called, have dreams and imaginings about what the statues mean, and where they are going to go now they are no longer relevant. With visual references to Saddam Hussein, Cecil John Rhodes and Lenin, the narrative takes a magic-realist approach to the impermanence of power.

An impressive team for Save the Pedestals

There’s an impressive team behind – and in front of – this production. The bar is raised at the start by it being a Vladislavić story (he is by far one of the country’s finest writers). Then there’s veteran choreographer Robin Orlyn taking charge of the stage direction. And the Handspring Puppet Company providing an impressive presence in the form of Comrade A and Ma Z,  who are portrayed by giant puppets. The Halle Puppet Theatre from Germany appears to have a good reputation. And the actors/puppeteers are a cosmopolitan crew from Germany, DRC and Botswana. All of which sounds really good.

Save the Pedestals review

Unfortunately, the execution was uneven throughout the 75-minute performance. There were a few moments of conceptual loveliness – such as the evocation of a train journey into the city – and the creative use of Go Pro-like cameras produced some great effects, notably the mischievous behavior of some monuments after lights out. And the combination of elements – physical theatre, music, puppetry, visual effects – had an initial wow factor.

Random bursts

But this wasn’t enough to sustain a convincing, engaging narrative. There was no arc – and using devices like speeding up or slowing down the action doesn’t count. And there was no sense of a cohesive rhythm – people appeared to be awkwardly improvising, or would enthusiastically encourage audience participation, in random bursts and for no conceivable reason. Scenes would be held for way too long – why would one want to watch a bunch of actors eating? Repeatedly? Personally, I felt patronised – as though things had to be explained to me in over-exaggerated gestures and over-the-top facial movements. The finale, such as it was, felt drawn out and indulgent, like a group of stoners at Afrika Burn deciding to build a sculpture out of their pyjamas – and expecting you to clap.

Sorry – I really, really was looking forward to this. All the right pieces seemed to be in place. But I suspect this one’s not going to be on a pedestal for very long.

What: Save the Pedestals

Where and when: Baxter Flipside from 28 to 30 March 2019. Matinee on 30 March 2019

Book: Webtickets

WS