Theatre doesn’t get much more brilliant than Elvis du Pisanie


BRILLIANT – noun, a gem (such as a diamond) cut in a particular form with numerous facets so as to have special brightness or brilliance. Yes, I reckon the headline works.

The Return Of Elvis du Pisanie is written by the legend who is Paul Slabolepszy, who performed the multi award-winning one-man play in the early 1990s. Or late 20th century if you want to be like that. This time, he directs Ashley Dowds in the role, which you can see at Theatre On The Bay until June 15. That is next week, so don’t think about it for too long – just book the tickets for it is yet another must-see. We may not have the luxury of long runs but man, do we get quality.

The play is at times funny, for chuckles rather than guffaws, and then excruciatingly sad. Dowds is the title character, but also an entire cast of supporting ones as well as a treasure chest full of sound effects. Although it’s not new and has won the awards and accolades and been much spoken about, it’s still incredible to sit there in the darkness of the theatre where the focus is one person on a sparse stage, and be transported into the past and its tales of love and tragedy through voices and accents and body language, while you think of the person from whose mind this sprung. The man wrote it. He acted it. And now he directs it. What did I say? Legend. Not to take a thing away from Dowds of course, who had some king-size boots to fill, and fill them he does.

Synopsis: Eddie du Pisanie, a 49-year-old East Rand salesman, is retrenched and decides life is no longer worth living. He writes a suicide note to his wife and is about to gas himself in his car in the garage, when he switches on the car radio. The Elvis Presley song he hears does more than take him back 30 years – it recalls an event in his childhood that changed his life forever. Abandoning – for the moment – the idea of suicide, he drives the 200 kilometre journey to the town in which he grew up, to a lamp post opposite the ex-Carlton Bioscope in Witbank, there to retrace his life, to try to find out what went wrong, how it went wrong, and perhaps most importantly, why it went wrong.

“Lara Foot directed me over three months in early 1992,” said Slabolepszy. The play toured nationally for more than two years and won Best Play, Best Actor, Best Director in every province in SA. “I played the role again in 2002 when once more I toured SA.”

In answer to my questions, Slabolepszy said: “It was a very emotional experience directing the wonderful Ashley Dowds. The Return Of Elvis Du Pisanie is in my cells. Nostalgia plays a part, but the story is universal and forever. When I did the play in Washington DC in 1993 it moved audiences as powerfully as it still does today.

“Young people today still identify strongly. If they don’t get all the references it doesn’t matter. Joy and heartbreak and a story simply told. Timeless!”

Some of the initial apprehension about beginning work on a project like The Return Of Elvis Du Pisanie is the scale of the story, said Dowds. “You are on stage for 75 minutes, alone. The feeling of time on stage is not linear, it’s measured in story units though.

“The present moment is a journey along the inhabitation of memory and place – even if it is a rehearsed into the architecture of movement around the space. It is also about the communal understanding of where story is moving; the audience and the actor joined together in the creation of a moment. In that respect, you’re not alone.

“A reminder to me from actor Yoshi Oida was useful: ‘I believe that an actor’s job is not to show what he or she can do, but to bring the audience into another time and space.’

“There is no getting away from the technical demands of a story for stage – and even more so for this as a solo show: There is a structure that needs attention to light and shade, to nuance, to figuring out what makes a scene comical, or how it works as an emotional trigger point.

“Being directed by Paul was a gift – he knows all of this first hand (I saw his performance of Elvis a few times) but it is also a daunting prospect, because he knows the way it should work on stage. He is an enormously generous soul who offers the world of his story and his characters to anyone who ventures into it with a whole heart.”

Oh. Well. That just makes me love him even more. I’m so grateful I got to see this very special piece, masterfully executed in every way.

  • Age restriction: PG13
  • Ticket prices: R180 – R250
  • Bookings: Webtickets or 021 438 3301
  • Watch this promo
  • Production images by Keaton Ditchfield
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