All-black SA acting company evicted from theatre

A British director and his all-black South African acting company have been thrown out of their theatre after less than a year, amid claims of poor box office takings and “financial irregularities”.

The Isango Portobello group, which grew from a township to perform award-winning interpretations of Mozart’s The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo) and The Mysteries (Yiimimangaliso) in London, and its director Mark Dornford-May arrived at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town on Monday to find the doors locked against them.

A statement from Isango, which has about 40 actors, compared the eviction with the apartheid government’s forced removals of black people from Cape Town’s District Six, which is home to the new theatre, named after leading South African playwright Athol Fugard .

But Eric Abraham, the theatre owner and Isango’s patron, said he was left with no choice because the company’s shows played to near-empty houses and made losses that were unsustainable.

The Fugard Theatre, redeveloped from two warehouses and a church, opened with great fanfare last February at a gala attended by government ministers, director Sean Mathias, actors Alan Rickman and Janet Suzman and Fugard himself.

From Khayelitsha to London’s West End twice”
Abraham, a film and West End theatre producer in Britain, spoke to the audience about Isango’s rise and secure future: “From Khayelitsha to London’s West End twice — an Olivier Award — to standing ovations in Dublin, Tokyo, Paris and elsewhere. All out of a church hall in Athlone and steel containers. Well now your homeless days are over.”

The relationship between South African-born Abraham and artistic director Dornford-May, from Goole in the East Riding, has soured in the past nine months.

Having been locked out of the premises on Monday, Isango then issued a statement entitled: “Isango acting company forcibly removed from District Six home.” It said: “Shamila Rahim, the theatre manager who was in the office, was escorted out of the building by a security guard and her keys taken.

“Shamila has been working on the creation of a theatre for District Six since 2003. Her grandmother was one of the many who were evicted from District Six during the clearances. She is sad and shocked at the way history has repeated itself once again.”

The statement added: “Recently Eric Abraham has severed links with the company’s co-founders Mark Dornford-May and Pauline Malefane. He says he is concerned about the company’s financial dependency on him.”

Abraham said today the decision was made “following the discovery of certain financial irregularities that have taken place and which are currently being investigated,” though he declined to elaborate.

Last resort
He told the Guardian: “It’s enormously regrettable. It was a decision I took as a last resort after months of attempts to negotiate which have ended in stalemate. It’s tragic really. I feel for the cast because they have been misled and given one version of the story.”

Abraham — who with his wife Sigrid Rausing co-founded Portobello Books — said he has been Isango’s sole benefactor over the past four years, putting in more than R30m, and underwrote the Fugard Theatre at a cost of about R20m.

“I embarked on this as an affirmation. It was an act of cultural philanthropy. But it was predicated on them building a sustainable model. I now feel I am to blame for creating a culture of entitlement.”

He insisted that the theatre had never been intended for Isango’s use alone, and had enjoyed hits with Waiting for Godot, starring Sir Ian McKellen, and Fugard’s The Train Driver, which transferred to the Hampstead Theatre in London. But Abraham said box office sales for Isango’s past two productions, Aesop’s Fables and The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, were just 20% of capacity.

The latter show, which closed on Saturday night, cost upwards of R600 000 to stage and brought in a return of just R143 000.

Ibraham, a former foreign correspondent for the BBC and Guardian, said Isango had failed to grow the black audience needed to make the financial model viable. “The box office reality of their productions has not been encouraging. There is no way one can sustain it with figures of 20%. The group may well be successful abroad but there is a fair way to go at home.

“Theatre is still a peripheral white activity in South Africa. The reality of the Fugard Theatre is that 97% of audience members have been white in spite of the enormous efforts we have made.” –

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