"It is clear that I must find my other half, but is it a he or is it a she? Can two people actually become one?" This is a central theme in VRG Theatrical’s production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the acclaimed Tony Award-winning rock musical by John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, now on at Cape Town’s new cabaret venue, Gate69. The opening song, and the audition track for this production, Origin of Love, references Plato’s Symposium.
Theatre buffs may recognise Paul du Toit (Hedwig) for his role as Brad in the Fugard Theatre’s The Rocky Horror Show, while television fans will know him from his 10-year casting in Binnelanders — just two of the noteworthy performance credits on a lengthy CV.
Du Toit says the interesting part about doing a show like Hedwig is that the audience has no idea what’s coming next, unlike a Rocky Horror audience, which has clear expectations. "This play messes with audiences’ heads as well. It starts as a silly drag show and just as they’ve figured that out, the plot turns, and goes quite dark. Then it turns again and goes completely Dionysian at the end," he says.
Hedwig offends just about everyone by the end of the first scene. "She’s anti-Semitic, cracks jokes at the expense of the disabled and is abusive towards her husband. Her redeeming quality is her acerbic wit . And the challenge to make an audience sympathetic to her story is fantastic," says Du Toit. "All these horrible things are a direct result of her background of child abuse, being hurt in love, being divorced, being rejected by her mother ..."
The musical explores Hedwig’s life and complex gender identity after undergoing sex-change surgery to enable her to escape East Germany as the wife of an American man. As part of his preparation for the role, Du Toit spoke to friends who have undergone gender modification. "One point I raised was that they chose to have a sex change whereas Hedwig was a reluctant sex-change candidate. My friend disagreed, saying none of them chose it. This was them making the best of what [they had] to work with. That struck a chord in me," he says. "It’s that fundamental sense of not belonging in this body, as opposed to not belonging in a place or situation."
In addition to making a concerted effort to lose weight, Du Toit stepped up his daily exercises to prepare his vocal chords for the onslaught. "Hard rock is a tough style to sing in, because some of those numbers inspire so much emotional release. It becomes therapeutic, because I draw on specific events in my life."
An authors’ note encourages performers to make the script their own, to ad lib and rework it to place the universe of the play within a context relevant for where it’s being performed. "I arrived on day one with half of it already rewritten. And we’ve gone with most of it. I felt confident to do that as I knew the piece quite well," says Du Toit.
Genna Galloway stars as Hedwig’s second husband, Yitzhak, delivering a performance that enables her to shine dramatically, and especially vocally, as never before.
With design and make-up by Niall Griffin and musical direction by Wessel Odendaal, this is an unforgettable production by a remarkable team.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch runs at Gate69 off Bree Street, Cape Town, until November 27. Tickets are R550 and include a drink, mezze platter, hot bread service and dessert. Bookings are via the box office on 071-589-2915 or at www.gate69.co.za. No under 16s.