CITY PRESS REVIEW: Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a raucous, glittery must-see

2018-03-18 00:00
Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Johannesburg - The riveting 1998 cult phenomenon Hedwig and the Angry Inch has come to South African theatre and has already won two national theatre awards for its riveting, gut-wrenching rendition of the 20-year-old stage musical.

South Africa’s latest incarnation of Hedwig and the Angry Inch is directed by Elizma Badenhorst and performed by Paul du Toit as survivor-heroine Hedwig, while her husband Yitzhak is played by Genna Galloway. The pair won top acting honours at last year’s Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards for their Cape Town leg of the production.

The musical first graced the stage in 1998 as an off-Broadway production. The text for the play is by award-winning writer/director/actor John Cameron Mitchell, while its music and lyrics are written by Stephen Trask. Hedwig has a global cult following, particularly after it was adapted into the 2001 American musical film of the same name, which starred Mitchell in the title role.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

It’s about a glam and punk rock band fronted by transgender woman Hedwig Schmidt, who tells the story of her brutal past through a gripping monologue interspersed by various musical numbers.

Hedwig, who grew up in communist East Germany marred by the Berlin wall, was born as Hansel Schmidt as a self-described “slip of a girly boy”. It’s here that Hansel first meets Sergeant Luther Robinson, a predatory American forces officer. Robinson offers an escape from the violent and oppressive regime if Hansel agrees to marry him, but there’s a catch: Hansel must undergo sexual reassignment surgery if he is to pass a physical examination as Robinson’s wife.

Hansel’s mother convinces him to take on her identity and name – thus becoming Hedwig – and he is “dragged to the doctor”, only for the operation to be botched when Hansel’s “guardian angel fell asleep on the watch”.

Hansel, now Hedwig, is left with a “one-inch mound of flesh”, her angry inch where her penis used to be and her vagina never was. In her song about her transition, titled Angry Inch, Hedwig describes the remaining scar as a “sideways grimace on an eyeless face”.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

In a bitter twist of irony, Robinson leaves Hedwig for a man and the Berlin Wall falls on November 9 1989 – exactly a year after she married Robinson and her surgery left her with an angry inch.

Hedwig’s bitterness about her violent past spills over into her relationship with her second husband Yitzhak. A Jewish man originally from the Ukraine, Yitzhak first meets Hedwig while performing as a drag queen and begs her to save him from the oppressive communist regime by marrying him. Having grown up sexually abused by her father and emotionally abused and neglected by her mother, Hedwig relentlessly emotionally and sometimes physically abuses Yitzhak.

Performances of Hedwig and the Angry Inch have, in many ways, become darker than they were 20 years ago. Badenhorst’s Hedwig is a profound exploration of violence and how we endure it, how we cope with it, and how abused people can perpetuate the cycle.

“The production plays with your view of abusive dynamics, and Hedwig is even abusive of members of the audience in the theatre,” Badenhorst says.

Du Toit explains that the title character is both the protagonist and antagonist of her own story. And while Hedwig can be utterly charming, she is not always a sympathetic character.

“Hedwig is a narcissist and an abuser, and at times a profoundly hideous character,” he says.

The multiple award-winning actor is perhaps best known for his roles as Dean on soap opera Backstage and his role as Malan Koster in the M-Net/kykNET soap opera Binnelanders. While many actors have expressed the difficulties of portraying Hedwig, Du Toit says he’s found it “remarkably easy” to play the bitter rock opera star.

“John Cameron Mitchell wrote such a phenomenal character and the script is so well put together that it makes it easy to perform,” he explains.

“I had no personal demons to work through. Instead, I wanted to find the human being behind the script, with no judgement of Hedwig.”

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

“I’ve been in love with her since 2001,” Du Toit says, referring to the original release of the film adaptation of the play, adding: “I say that without hyperbole.”

While Hansel didn’t long to be a woman, Hedwig’s botched operation leaves her in a “constant state of body dysmorphia”, the actor says. Regardless, she embraces her new identity as a woman even after Robinson eventually leaves her for a man.

“She presents as a woman, she identifies as a woman, but she also considers herself the [Berlin] Wall – which she likens to a bridge – between man and woman.”

The actor says the film had a profound impact on him and how he interacts with the world.

“In the same way that Hamlet helps you understand sulky teenagers, Hedwig helped me understand gender and identity,” he explains.

“Hedwig perpetually sees herself as a victim and in many ways she is. She uses a mask of acerbic wit to try to hide her pain, often repeating the words: ‘I laugh because I’ll cry if I don’t’. But there is so much more to Hedwig than her acerbic wit and great hair.”


Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Pieter Toerien Main Theatre at Montecasino

On until April 1

R100 to R300 at

Rating: Five stars

(Photos supplied)

Read more on:    theatre  |  paul du toit

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