British writers stage takeover on the boards in SA

Patrick Marber and William Shakespeare, along with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton, are this season’s unlikely headline acts in Johannesburg.

British writers are suddenly centre stage in a theatre culture where indigenous plays or comedy, music and dance hold sway. But whether their work can remain defiantly British or must bend to the expectations of South African audiences is being put to the test.

Marber’s Closer is being staged with an all-black cast at the Market Theatre, celebrated for its radical politics during the apartheid era, now a leader in producing new South African writing.

Closer‘s director, Sello Maake ka Ncube, has relocated the action from London to Durban with mixed results. References to townships and uShaka Marine World Aquarium collide with unchanged mentions of London landmarks such as the Millennium Bridge and Postman’s Park. But few critics have been troubled by the characters’ transition to South Africa’s metropolitan middle-class. In a programme note, Ncube suggests South African writing is still playing catch-up to the Western canon. “Our life, having been saturated with Eurocentric culture and influence,” he writes, “it’s only befitting that until we have plays that can match the contemporary plays and the modern classics that European theatres have produced … actors are given the metaphoric leather to chew on”.

One of the giants of South African theatre, John Kani, is directing his son, Atandwa, in Othello at Wits University. Shakespeare is a relative stranger to Johannesburg, although the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre near Cape Town has been performing his work annually for more than half a century.

Meanwhile, rehearsals began last week for The Boys in the Photograph, adapted from Lloyd Webber and Elton’s modestly successful The Beautiful Game. It’s a gamble: what will South African audiences make of a musical about football set in Sixties and Seventies Belfast?

The Joburg Theatre hopes that the portrayal of sectarianism in Northern Ireland and its impact on the young will strike a chord in a country that emerged from apartheid only 16 years ago and is still riven by racial divisions. But this is a proudly “South African staging”, including more black cast members than might have been found in a Belfast football team of the time. It has been timed to coincide with the country’s hosting of the Soccer World Cup in June and July.

Last year also witnessed a rally of British drama in Cape Town. A rep company called The Mechanicals staged a “British Lines Tour” that included Steven Berkoff’s Decadence, The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter by Harold Pinter, and Blasted by Sarah Kane.

The newly opened Fugard Theatre in the same city will soon present a musical adaptation of Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, transplanted from working-class Britain to South Africa’s townships. The theatre is home to Isango Portobello, best known for its South African versions of the mystery plays and Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

“Often the criticism of Isango is that it ‘Africanises’ things,” says the company’s British-born director, Mark Dornford-May. “We don’t Africanise anything any more than the Metropolitan Opera Americanises things. We need to be proud of the culture and work like that instead of trying to copy what Europe does. Copied theatre is dead theatre.” –

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