Johannesburg - I don’t remember the year, but it was somewhere near the beginning of Afrikaans artist and entrepreneur Nataniel’s extraordinary 30-year career, probably the late 80s, during apartheid in the stiflingly conservative city of Pretoria.
I do remember the frock, though – vividly. Nataniel was performing in a small venue in the State Theatre. On the darkened stage was a statue of a Voortrekker woman in a giant Voortrekker dress. As the lights came up the statue came to life. It was Nataniel and he started to sing in his beautiful, honed, bluesy voice.
Aside from the gays, the audience was made up almost entirely of women, Nataniel told me when I backstaged him, most of whom didn’t tell their husbands that they were going to see one of his shows. Because Nataniel was a moffie, a transgressive icon-in-the-making, speaking in a camp, little-boy drawl and constantly reinventing his image, like a David Bowie or Madonna.
What made him so subversive was as much his audaciousness as his subtlety. As always, wrapped in impeccable technical artistry – the lights, set, audio, costumes – was a sweet and funny Afrikaans choirboy – in a dress, with pithy small-town stories that neatly unpack, tickle and prod at the psyche of the Afrikaner.
Almost 30 years on and nothing has changed, except the (still lily-white) audience. The husbands now come along to watch the transgressive moffie, and they get sucked in, soon chuckling along. It’s their naughty indulgence and it’s made Nataniel a cult figure that can pull off selling sausage for Checkers in national ad campaigns.
His latest show, 30 Years, 90 Minutes, is another technical masterpiece. His voice is as honed as ever – he literally hit only one false note on opening night. His exquisite wardrobe, courtesy Floris Louw, is as much of a revelation as his stage, which slowly blooms with white cotton candy trees and flowers. His all-male band offers textured and rich backing and harmonies, but never steals the limelight.
Nataniel understands the magic of theatre. Blink and you miss a costume change. An over-the-top Elizabethan queen’s dress becomes a king’s cape with a flick of the wrist. Sticks hang from the arms of a regal Japanese-style frock as, behind him, sticks appear suspended in the air from nowhere.
He has delivered this kind of quality live performance 6 000 times so far, has written and staged 79 theatre productions, released 17 albums and six DVDs, published 17 books, filmed three TV series and launched a homeware range. (What have you done with your life?)
Unfortunately, as he begins to kick into a truly exciting, soul space, he lets go of it and returns to his big old musical-style numbers. But this show also contains versions of other artists’ songs that have influenced his career, so it’s a beautiful mixed bag.
My uncomfortable moment came with the only story Nataniel tells in between songs that is about black people – a tale of banana republic clichés. It’s not so much him as the audience. They laughed when white people were being spoofed, but they roared with laughter when it was black people.
But Nataniel knows this about his audience and he treads his particular line with mastery, slowly, slowly leading Afrikaners into the light.
The show runs until September 24 and will then tour nationally.
Nataniel: 30 Years, 90 Minutes
Theatre of Marcellus at Emperors Palace
R160 to R225 at computicket.com