A place for theatre in post-apartheid South Africa

“I have a great idea for a play,” I told Malcolm Purkey, the director of Johannesburg’s internationally renowned Market Theatre. “A play about the forced removal of families from Sophiatown by the apartheid government.”

He replied: “I wrote it 20 years ago. Look it up.”

I tiptoed past Purkey and other theatre folk last week to take my seat at the Cinema Nouveau in Johannesburg. The red carpet had been rolled out for a special kind of premiere. The National Theatre in London’s production of Phèdre, starring Helen Mirren, was shown in high definition on the big screen. The performance had been broadcast live last month to British cinemas, but took a few weeks to reach the southern hemisphere.

We were duly transported from Johannesburg’s cold dark winter nights to a bright summer’s evening on London’s South Bank. There was a curious preamble in which an unkempt Jeremy Irons talked about the perils of live performance, then proved the point with a rambling attempt to interview the production’s director, Nicholas Hytner.

I marvelled at finding myself back in the Lyttelton theatre, where I have sat many times, and felt the charge of audience anticipation even at 8 800km remove. The filming of a play proved far subtler than merely pointing a camera at the actors and letting them get on with it. The action came at us from all angles and what we lost in live atmosphere, we gained in close-ups of the actors’ faces. It fulfilled Hytner’s hopes for an experience both intimate and epic.

The show was a sell-out, with some people turned away, and the audience sat gripped for two hours. As we filed out, I asked a veteran theatre producer if she would consider putting Racine’s Phèdre on stage here. “Not a chance,” she said. “Nobody would come.”

She continued: “There is no appetite for serious theatre in Johannesburg any more. The audience you see here tonight; this is it. The rest have all died or emigrated, or they’re sitting behind high walls with electric wire fences watching big flat screen TVs.”

It was a gloomy analysis, and of course nowhere in the world compares with the theatre capitals of London and New York. But in Johannesburg, this is the scene I have surveyed so far.

The Market Theatre, founded in 1976 in the former Indian fruit market, produced work that challenged the apartheid regime, gave a voice to the voiceless and became celebrated as the “theatre of the struggle”. But what now the struggle is over? It has reinvented itself as a house primarily for new writing by and about South Africans — township memoirs, political satires, stand-up comedy and physical performance. Audiences are more voluble than in Britain, speaking their minds and laughing as if they mean it.

Over at the Joburg Theatre, the byword is entertainment under Huddersfield-born Bernard Jay, former manager of the drag artist Divine.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Aspects of Love has been followed by a well drilled, vivacious production of Footloose. Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton’s football musical, The Beautiful Game, will coincide with the Soccer World Cup next year, having been retitled The Boys in the Photograph.

Uptown, in affluent Sandton, is the Old Mutual Theatre on the Square. Its past productions include Blithe Spirit, Blue/Orange, Copenhagen, Decadence, Life x 3 and Romance. The current show, The Rat Pack, featuring decent impressions of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr and Dean Martin, can’t go far wrong with a clutch of deathless songs.

The obvious component that’s missing are the classics of the western canon: the Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and Marlowe, Chekhov and Ibsen. It seems that they simply don’t sell. The American masterpieces Death of a Salesman and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? have been performed in the past decade but failed to establish a bridgehead.

Such plays gain more traction in Cape Town, often described as a more culturally European city. Earlier this year the Baxter Theatre staged The Tempest, with two giants of South African theatre, Antony Sher and John Kani. Shakespeare has been performed at the city’s Maynardville Open Air Theatre every summer for more than 50 years.

But the buzz is around a new generation of black playwrights and performance poets exploring identity politics. A growing middle class who remember little of apartheid have the uncertain feeling of one foot in the township, the other in the suburb. At this month’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Pam Ngwabeni described life as a township lesbian.

This is in spite of, rather than because of, a government that has spent billions on arms and football stadiums and is often accused of paying lip service to the arts. Theatre is still seen as a poor relation, with little opportunity to influence what the British like to describe as “the national conversation”. Actors are best advised to sign up for the country’s hugely popular television “soapies” to earn a living.

Kani, who has been described as “the Mandela of the theatre” in South Africa, told the Sowetan newspaper recently: “In this country, there is no theatre industry to speak of. We are a country that is unable to create stars. For example, whenever I go to London or New York there is always a media conference held at the airport, but in this country, we are just ordinary.”

Yet my most memorable night at the theatre here came watching Kani’s semi-autobiographical Nothing but the Truth, a cry on behalf of the unsung millions who marched in the streets to help overthrow apartheid only to feel unrewarded and betrayed. It is a favourite on the school curriculum and was watched by hundreds of children during its run. Like much enduring art, it has an emotional reach and lasting impact that few speeches or newspaper columns can match.

Kani’s humble, disappointed librarian has little in common with Helen Mirren’s ancient queen shedding jealous tears on the other side of the world. Yet both told me that theatre that soars and cracks your heart can happen anywhere. – guardian.co.uk

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