Going through the travails of exploring three characters who each require a particular temperament in Agreed, currently on stage at the Market Theatre, requires a rather special individual, a brilliant mind, a great actor – an artist.
Having dedicated some 25 years to the craft, Newton has earned the right to speak freely about acting, whether it be theatre, television or film. However, he speaks of his acting life (which has included time with the Royal Shakespeare Company) somewhat with indifference.
“I’m surprised that I’m an actor. I should have been a plumber or carpenter,” he says.
“I’m very quiet, and not very social. I don’t tell jokes, nor am I ever the life of the party. My becoming an actor was a matter of survival; a moment of courage. In primary school we used to do performances every Friday and on one particular day, I had to play a dog.
“We had a very unlikeable English teacher, so I mimicked a dog peeing at her desk, which had everyone rolling in laughter. Until that moment I was never cool and nobody ever noticed me. I saw the power of humour, and had that not happened I would probably have been a mechanic in the East Rand or something like that.”
Newton kept at it and has won numerous awards for his work. The genesis for the creation of Agreed was initially out of a need for Newton to take on a one-hander again. The play consists of three parts: Robert Browing’s classic The Pied Piper Of Hamelin; The Handover by Nick Warren (which examines the new black elite); and Newton’s Jasmine Jewel.
Newton approached Warren to add a touch of his artistry to compliment his own and Browning’s work in a classic that introduces greed as the underlying thread in all three parts of the play. Cellist Kutlwano Masote provides the soundtrack and effects. Newton then roped in Sylvaine Strike, to be director.
“Nick Warren’s piece really goes back to my days when I used to do protest theatre,” Newton continues.
“That particular satirical piece takes on stereotypes and features poetry, alliteration and rhyme. I made that character slightly intriguing; you couldn’t tell whether he was gay or not. You could never really tell whether or not he is talking to his secretary or making a speech. And the beauty of it is that it ends up really saying more about him than what he is saying.”
In her director’s note, Strike recalls the experience of putting together this production and watching Newton and Masote work together.
“Creating this triptych or theatrical fugue has been a rare delight,” writes Strike.
“Agreed is a simple piece of theatre comprising of an actor, his body and voice, a cellist with his cello – and three monologues. However, a few of us can say we are not viscerally affected by witnessing an actor at work or watching and listening to a cellist play his cello in a space.
“When creating theatre, I have seldom had the privilege of having a musician in a rehearsal room, not to mention one whose sensitivity to the spoken word is as developed as it is to the sublime notes he creates. Lionel’s metamorphic inhabiting each of the three characters he portrays has been a mesmerising journey to develop and witness. Once we had found a common language, the fusion of the actor’s and cello’s voices proved to be awe-inspiring.”
Indeed Newton has to inhabit three roles, which means that his process had to deal with three different approaches. This can be punishing, but Newton’s background and experience stand him in good stead.