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The audience is waiting

As we sat charmed by the brilliant opulence of the musical The King and I at the Johannesburg Civic Theatre, there was a technical glitch and the lights went out. No, it had nothing to do with Eskom. But who could be sure? This prompted the actress, Angela Kilian, playing a British governess, to make an impromptu quip to the king of Siam (who lay on his deathbed). ‘There is load-shedding in Siam,” she said, to laughter all round.

Engineers set to work. Soon light was restored and the production re-commenced. It seems the world of theatre is better equipped to deal with the vicissitudes of power than the rest of us.

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian, Market Theatre artistic director Malcolm Purkey tells of a related incident. He says the comedy, Just Because, had to be finished at nearby Capello’s restaurant after a power outage at his venue.

‘We are exploring and planning but there are no easy options. We are looking at generators,” he says. ‘We’ll have to get data on the times when there are outages.”

Looking ahead to the 2010 World Cup, Purkey finds the possibility that the Newtown area might become a fan village irksome. ‘How will theatre-goers find parking when there are 50 000 football fans around?”

These prickly developments aside, Purkey remains buoyant and sure of the theatre’s continued relevance: ‘We have started very well. Yesterday [January 27] we were full.”

Purkey says that although, occasionally, the theatre shows plays that appeal to certain groups, for instance Ghoema, about the coloured community in the Cape, the Market Theatre generally tries to stage work that appeals to a broad audience. He says the bulk of its allure is in showcasing new works. He points out that although it shows international work, ‘we want to remain the premier new works theatre”.

As a result, the Market Theatre has increased its revenues. Acknowledging this, the department of arts and culture gave it a good governance award for its clean audit last year at a time when some cultural institutions are in the red.

Purkey wryly observes that the Market’s theatres are full on low-priced Tuesdays — a sign that people want to watch plays, but find the prices a bit steep. ‘I am a great believer in popular prices for theatre, but our books have to balance.”

The Market Theatre is on the southern end of the so-called cultural arc, which includes the Wits Theatre, the recently reopened Alexander Theatre and the Johannesburg Civic Theatre in Braamfontein. Purkey says he finds the idea intriguing but insists more work should be done on the arc, perhaps involving a jazz club and a bus service that runs between the two ends. ‘At the moment each institution is looking after itself.”

The southern end of the arc is showing James Baldwin’s The Amen Corner, cleverly adapted for South Africa by director James Ngcobo.

In an interview Ngcobo is ecstatic about the state of theatre, which he believes is experiencing an upturn in fortunes. ‘Theatre should be a fun thing to do,” Ngcobo says, lauding the diversity of the scene now. ‘We should cater for all tastes. It is good that we are now seeing musicals, which we never used to see.”

Young director Tsepo Mamatu, who in 2006 put out a political play called 100% Zuluboy, is, however, despondent about the theatre scene, arguing that it is failing ‘to engage with the elephant in the room; that beast which will not disappear”.

Mamatu notes ‘that there is still a lot of racism in this country; we know for certain that the poorest of the poor struggle to make ends meet, we are aware that they are missing links in our miracle as a nation.

‘Yet we put much effort into pantomimes, musicals that have no effect on the lived experiences of people and in restaging old meaningless plays about how the struggle was won, plays about defeated black ­people.”

Mamatu argues that, in this darkness, practitioners like Kgafela Magogodi and Mike van Graan shine.

Van Graan’s Brothers in Blood, which will premiere at the Market Theatre later this year, examines relations between Muslims, Jews and Christians. Although set in Cape Town, Van Graan hopes it will resonate with audiences from further afield.

‘It will look at how the relationships between these people are based on stereotypes,” he says. He hopes his play will, obliquely, throw light on the relationships between whites and blacks in South Africa and explore the themes of otherness and difference.

He wonders why mainstream post-1994 theatre has been largely silent about contemporary challenges and left them to community theatre to grapple with. He believes professional theatre is ‘sanitised” and fails to reflect the poverty of the majority or their battles with HIV/Aids. ‘I am surprised we don’t have theatre dealing with that. Is it self-censorship?”

Van Graan feels that with the advent of democracy writers have become ambivalent and unsure of which subjects to tackle. Apartheid presented an unquestionable and absolute wrong that was easy to lampoon. But Van Graan insists that contemporary society presents many nuances, complexities and ironies. ‘There is a lot to explore,” he observes.

He notes that although official apartheid was defeated, local theatre remains polarised. ‘There is a lot of Afrikaans theatre at Afrikaans festivals, but not much in main theatres. There isn’t much cross-pollination,” he says. This divide is reflected by theatre-goers. ‘Audiences are ethnically divided,” he says.

Van Graan speculates that funding difficulties have contributed to the prevailing blandness. He says independent theatre producers ‘have to make money. People don’t want serious stuff, don’t want to be reminded of crime or HIV/Aids.”

As a result artists write about every­thing except the challenges society faces. ‘We are pandering to the interests of theatre-goers but we are also doing theatre-goers a disservice.”

Aubrey Sekhabi, artistic director at the State Theatre in Pretoria, is in two minds. He is ecstatic about the infrastructural developments that have resulted in Gauteng boasting four new theatres. But he also decries the paltry volumes of new work coming out of the mainstream. Sekhabi notes that our big theatres are being built with international musicals in mind.

When I point out that a weekday showing of Greig Coetzee’s Blood Orange at the Market Theatre was almost empty, he counters that ‘we have not put development structures in place”.

He complains that, at a community level, people are unaware of the professional work being produced. He also feels society should not prescribe to writers.

Coetzee, director of the adaptation of Troy Blacklaws’s novel Blood Orange, seems puzzled by the public’s lukewarm response to his physical theatre. The play, with Craig Morris, runs at a frenetic pace and centres on a white child growing up in a divided society. It’s theme is a changing world and its impact on the child’s world view.

Coetzee wonders why the people who attend concerts in the inner city ignore theatre. ‘People view theatre as a poor cousin of entertainment,” he suggests.

As a result many practitioners who would pay the rent from their theatre income have to write for television. Coetzee complains that not much is invested in nurturing writers and that in future new works might be in short supply.

Coetzee disagrees with those who say international works are eating into local producers’ terrain. ‘The idea is to get people to go to the theatre. It attracts people who wouldn’t otherwise go.”

Drawing analogies with rugby, which draws the masses, he argues that people should not watch theatre because they want to support a good cause — describing this as a hang­over from the protest days. ‘People should go to the theatre because they want to have a good time,” he insists.

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Percy Zvomuya
Percy Zvomuya is a writer and critic who has written for numerous publications, including Chimurenga, the Mail & Guardian, Moto in Zimbabwe, the Sunday Times and the London Review of Books blog. He is a co-founder of Johannesburg-based writing collective The Con and, in 2014, was one of the judges for the Caine Prize for African Writing.

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