THE multi-Durban Theatre Award-nominated tragi-comedy, White Christmas, is being staged at the Hexagon Theatre on the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Pietermaritzburg campus, for one performance only on Saturday, December 3 at 7.30 pm. ESTELLE SINKINS speaks to its star Jonathan Cohen.
Written and directed by multiple-award winning theatre-maker, Clinton Marius (Fantastical Flea Circus, B!*ch Stole My Doek, Sweetie Darling, Lollipop Lane), the play was first staged at Seabrooke’s Theatre at Durban High School in Durban in March this year.
Briefly, it tells the tale of the Van Niekerk family’s annual festive season holiday at the Park Rynie caravan park on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. But like an onion, this production has numerous layers and will make you both laugh and cry.
Pietermaritzburg-born, Durban-based actor, Cohen, admits to being really nervous when he was approached by Marius to do White Christmas.
“I’d never done a solo show before and was used to working with other actors onstage,” he explains. “Once I got to know the story and understand the character a bit more, [however] it became something I worked with, not for.”
Cohen plays the engaging JP van Niekerk, who chats to the audience as he sets up camp, sharing stories about his parents and sister. We learn that they are underprivileged, unpretentious people.
JP’s father is a sensitive and supportive character, while his mother is single-minded, matriarchal, religious and strict. He is particularly close to his elder sister, Chalet, who is strong willed, ambitious and loving.
As the play unfolds, however, you begin to realise that something is wrong. It’s to Marius’ credit and clever writing that the revelation, when it comes, has so much dramatic power.
Cohen’s JP is wonderfully well rounded, likeable and engaging. The character is the result, he says, of “seeing how far I could push myself in terms of character-switching, and the level of detail I could get into with JP’s family and the other characters.
“Once I had established that, and even when their family dynamic had been established, it was easy for JP to be standing in the room. There are also many parts of JP’s character and story that I personally relate to, and those small things gave me a good reference to use.”
Another big help was Marius’ writing. “One thing I’ve always maintained, especially when it comes to high school kids hating Shakespeare, is that scripts are meant to be performed, not read,” says Cohen.
“Clinton knows how to write for the stage, he knows how to build characters well and make them believable on paper. If you’re presented with a solid 2D model of your characters, like the ones Clinton gave me, it’s a lot easier to make them 3D than it is if characters aren’t the driving force of the work.
“Also, because this story is so closely related to Clinton’s own story, we spoke at length about the characters, how they would probably interact, who they would sound like. Luckily, one-man shows also come with a unwritten rule of slight exaggeration, so it gave me the space to really play around with aspects of voice, posture and movement.”
The Hexagon Theatre is a familiar space for Cohen who studied at UKZN Pietermaritzburg and performed in several shows, including Peter Mitchell’s The Great American Songbook, and he’s looking forward to sharing White Christmas with ‘Maritzburg audiences.
“I always feel really nostalgic walking into the Hexagon Theatre complex – most of the major life lessons I learned happened in that building, I made some of my closest friends there,” he says.
“It was the first place where I truly felt believed in by someone other than my mom, and I owe a huge amount to the lecturers and to Peter Mitchell.
“I haven’t performed in the Hex for a few years now, but luckily it’s a place that I’m intensely comfortable being in. I know how things work, I know the people who work there, and I always feel welcome. It’s also going to be wonderful to show the people who helped shaped my theatre grounding how far I’ve come since leaving Pietermaritzburg.”
He certainly has. Now based in Durban, Cohen has performed in KickStArt Theatre Company’s Shrek and played the title role in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and The Boys, directed for the Hilton Arts Festival by Peter Mitchell.
He was also nominated for best lead actor, best solo performer and best new performer male for White Christmas, three of six Durban Theatre Award nominations that the play earned.
Being recognised by his peers has, he says, has helped him to feel more secure as an actor.
“Moving to Durban and working with KickStArt and meeting all these incredibly talented people, and then slowly building a group of acquaintances in the theatre industry was all quite overwhelming, and I wasn’t really sure that I would fit in,” Cohen says.
“I’m very, very self-critical and I always told myself not too expect too much, because I was new to the theatre scene here and it’s hard to be taken seriously if you haven’t paid your dues.
“Billy Suter had posted on Facebook a while ago that the next edition of the Mercury would have all the names of the nominees, and I thought, just breathe, you can take a walk to the garage in the morning to buy the paper, Copy Dog [Productions] has probably been nominated, but it’s your first year out of the supporting cast, so don’t build up your expectations.
“The next morning I woke up and my phone was being inundated with messages on Whatsapp, Facebook notifications, a missed call or two from my mom. It was really surreal and I remember standing in my kitchen in completely stunned silence later on in the day, just trying to take it all in.”
Although Cohen didn’t walk away with an award on the night he’s not disappointed, saying: “I feel like it’s helped solidify my place in the theatre industry – I’m not here to play games anymore.”
As for what he would like people to take away from seeing White Christmas, Cohen says: “Without giving too much away, I hope that audiences will walk out of the theatre with a renewed sense of emotional attachment to themselves and their families. I hope they leave with a sense of loss, but also with a bit of hope.”
Tickets for Copy Dog Productions’ White Christmas, starring Jonathan Cohen, at the Hexagon Theatre are R100 (R80 students and pensioners). Booking is through Computicket on 0861 915 8000 or online at http://www.computicket.com. Secure parking is provided.