Theatre once set the agenda. It is why many old black-and-white movies feel so creaky: the theatricality of their dialogue and performances gives them that dated feel.
Back then, many movies were filmed stage dramas. Scriptwriters were often playwrights, the performers from the theatre. Plays were regularly turned into films, some spectacularly well, such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
But as film came to dominate public eyeballs, an opposite current emerged and, somewhat desperately, theatre began to do stage versions of movies, or turned them into musicals — which, at least, still expressed some of the joy of live performance. Billy Elliot, for one, is even better on stage than it is on screen.
Screenwriting became its own honed profession. Stage mannerisms retreated, mostly for the better in film.
Still, film and television have now almost destroyed stagecraft. To attract audiences, theatre managements cast film and TV stars with nearly no stage ability or experience, and playwrights have increasingly taken their cues from what they see on TV.
The most obvious influence of film on theatre has been the mood soundtrack, to manufacture emotion in the audience. This can work but it often masks the playwright’s inability to make us feel.
Unity of time and place has been shattered. This too can work in the right hands, but it is too often at the expense of our developing interest. The work begins to resemble a trailer for a film and blackouts in close succession wince on and off like a migraine.
Writers no longer seem able to sustain a scene (and consequently character) for more than 10 minutes. The very point at which theatre becomes interesting, partly because it is live and in real time, is when situations become almost intolerable, when words start to fail, when characters are at a loss. Invariably this is when scriptwriters, like screenwriters, cut to the next scene.
Modern theatre is at its best when it delivers the kind of magic only live performance can give an audience. Aware of this, theatremakers have explored and developed “physical theatre”, with the imaginative use of props, mime, a proliferation of multimedia and one-person format shows, and actors putting each other out of jobs by playing multiple roles. Economics has played a determining role.
With the exception of a trooper like Athol Fugard (now 80), a generation of English South African playwrights has fallen silent or seen only occasional revivals of their work.
Or is it simply that, compared to modern cable-TV series, the well-made play has had its day and is as boring and creaky as those 1940s black-and-white films?
Having seen many brilliant contemporary plays, I don’t think so. The well-made play, though rare, is a relief, a human affirmation in a digitised, distracted, sensationalised age.
It may be true that South African scriptwriting is going through an awkward phase: the skills that fashion a well-made play are horribly blunt, and writers seem trapped in parochial circumstances; emerging theatre styles are a work in progress as they battle to figure out successful new forms.
A handful of playmakers, however, seem to be getting something right with audiences.
Mike van Graan
Mike van Graan is the first “festival playwright”, a pilot initiative with Artscape, to be launched at this year’s National Arts Festival. The festival will present the première of Van Graan’s play, Writer’s Block, about a creative-writing teacher at an American university struggling to come to terms with her South African past.
The festival will also present Van Graan’s most recent plays: Brothers in Blood, about Jewish, Muslim and Christian relations in Cape Town, against the backdrop of the activities of Pagad — People Against Gangsterism and Drugs — in the 1990s; Panic, the story of the son of a wealthy, politically connected oil industry businessperson who turns environmentalist; and Rainbow Scars, about a suburban mom and her born-free daughter.
Van Graan, who shot to fame with Green Man Flashing, based on his radio play of 1999 about the rape of a woman by the country’s next deputy president, has been South Africa’s most prolific dramatic playwright, with a new play every year since 2003.
Drawn to controversy, he pushes the hot-button issues of the day. In Just Business he focused on black economic empowerment and corruption, in Iago’s Last Dance (2009) on the HIV pandemic, and in Die Generaal on land claims, the position of Afrikaners and the downtrodden lumpen proletariat.
Stylistically, Van Graan has tried his hand at various theatrical genres, including performance poetry and his Bafana Republic satirical revue.
He is often described in shorthand as a political playwright, but Van Graan resists such labelling.
“It becomes easy to dismiss or devalue the work of a writer through labels, much like ‘protest theatre’ was viewed as the very poor cousin of ‘real’ theatre,” Van Graan says. “In my work, I simply seek to make the links between the micro and the macro, the individual and the collective, believing that, if the personal was political during the apartheid era, there is little reason to believe that this is not still the case.”
Van Graan thinks that the contemporary playwriting scene in South Africa is “too concerned either with the local market and what we believe it wants (entertainment, escapism) and the international market — what will get us to travel abroad.” The effect of this trend “is that theatre perpetuates an elite and we exclude the stories and the audiences of the South African underclass who comprise the overwhelming majority.”
Van Graan would like to see “independent theatremakers and writers teaming up more, to take theatre out of the safe theatre spaces, to do more street theatre, to be more conscious of our society as a whole”.
“There are just so many more skilled theatremakers across racial boundaries [since apartheid] and much greater potential to create incisive theatre that speaks to contemporary South African realities, and to do it in a way that is entertaining and engaging.”
Another significant playwright at this year’s National Arts Festival is Mbongeni Ngema. Not only will he return to the stage for the first time in 27 years to do a solo performance of The Zulu — “a big challenge” he laughs — but the festival will also present revivals of two of his works — Woza Albert! (1981) and Asinamali (1985).
Ngema is one of an elite few South African playwrights to be nominated for the Broadway Tony Awards. His Sarafina (1987) was one of those ground-breaking works, up there with King Kong (1958). It electrified audiences and had a lengthy run in the United States.
More recently, Ngema has concentrated on making blockbuster musicals: “60% music and dancing, 40% story,” he says.
Woza Albert! (originally created with Percy Mtwa and Barney Simon) remains one of the plays most associated, internationally, with this country’s theatre. Its revival received accolades again at last year’s Edinburgh Festival. A milestone in South African theatre history, it is based on the fanciful and, at the time explosive, idea of what happens when Jesus (Morena, the Saviour) arrives on an SAA jetliner in apartheid South Africa.
Asinamali was inspired by the 1983 Lamontville township rent strike led by the martyred activist Msizi Dube with the rallying cry “Asinamali! [We have no money!]”. A theatrical poem, five black prisoners in apartheid-era khaki prison outfits sing, dance and tell their stories using a handful of props and five wooden chairs.
Both revivals are directed by Prince Lamla, winner of this year’s Standard Bank Young Artist award for drama, exactly 25 years after Ngema garnered the same award.
The Zulu is a new work centred on the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. Ngema says the story has not been fully told. His perspective is from that of his family. His great-grandfather and brothers were at the Battle of Isandlawana — “far too long painted as a British blunder. It is time to tell the story for what it was — a great Zulu victory.”
Ngema believes it is important for playwrights to stay political in their work.
“The born-frees who are feeling what freedom has brought us are a tiny percentage of the community; the majority are still poor, if not poorer. Think of recent stories of toilets built without roofs or walls … Think of the homeless, we’re getting into winter now … The majority of our community still have a lot to cry about — the education crisis, for instance. There are endless plays you could still write about our sociopolitical and economic reality.”
Lara Foot, former dramaturge at the Baxter Theatre Centre and now its chief executive officer, has won a bevy of South African theatre accolades.
Foot has put most of her energy into helping other playwrights and theatre-makers realise their work, and she has nurtured several dozen new South African scripts to their first staging.
Her own plays tackle taboos. Tshepang (2002) was based on a real event, the alleged gang rape of a nine-month-old baby by six men in a remote, impoverished community. Foot used refined, ironic humour to sketch a portrait of the community, then turned everyday objects into symbols with horrific poetic effect.
Karoo Moose (2007) returned to the subject of child rape and a rural town — a shattered, forsaken community where “there are no fathers”. A 15-year-old girl is sold for sex to pay off the gambling debts of her jobless and spiritually crushed father, “an opportunist with no opportunities”.
In neither work, however, does Foot lapse into sermonising, or even righteous anger. Her plays always have a redemptive quality.
Karoo Moose and Tshepang both had good scripts, but they were more physical theatre than text-based plays. Reach (2007), however, is a play one goes to hear. It skilfully charts the negotiation between two individuals as they reach out towards one another. A young black man, Solomon, turns up at the home of a white woman, Marion, a lonely figure, grieving for her son, killed in a hijacking. Details of his death are upsettingly familiar. The murderers have never been brought to justice due to police incompetence and an intimidated local community. The mystery that unfolds is why Solomon has come to her home.
The play was reworked as Solomon and Marion (2011) and performed by Khayalethu Anthony and Dame Janet Suzman, whom Foot says she had in mind when she wrote the play: “The tone of her voice was in my head.”
They will reprise their roles at the festival this year and on stage at the Theatre on the Square (Johannesburg) and the Baxter (Cape Town) before heading to Edinburgh.
Attracting interest as a fresh theatre voice is the Durbanite Neil Coppen (32), artistic director of Think Theatre Productions, award-winning playwright and the Standard Bank Young Artist for drama in 2011. This year’s Nationals Arts Festival Arena programme will feature his collaboration with the community theatre group Umsindo, titled Secrets from the Drawer.
Coppen is an eclectic theatre animal, who does everything from writing, directing and acting to designing costumes. His experimental plays at first included a number of festival and school touring works, but he came to national attention with his allegorical Tin Bucket Drum (2005) featuring Ntando Cele.
The work, with its shadow puppets and kabuki theatre influences, travelled to the Kraine Theatre in New York. It will be in Cape Town at the Kalk Bay Theatre later this year, and has also been invited to Iran.
His next big success was Tree Boy (2009). Set in the period when South Africa became a republic under Verwoerd’s National Party, it is the tale of an 11-year-old boy who must move from the family farm to the city after his mother dies and his father takes refuge in alcohol.
Coppen once again employed shadow puppetry and multimedia, using stop-motion animation and a musical score created and performed by Karen van Pletsen and Guy Buttery. It actively sought to distort the boundaries between cinema and theatre to create a dreamscape.
Coppen says: “I am a frustrated filmmaker. I probably wanted to be more a filmmaker than a theatremaker, and I’m trying to move towards film now.
“Younger audiences have a bigger understanding of film than they do of theatre … so it’s a way to appeal to them, to work with that sensibility.”
Still, Coppen adds, a lot of his work is with community theatre groups and “it’s interesting to see what soap operas have done to kids’ imaginations and storytelling. I’m on a mission to steer them away from that. I try and teach young theatremakers to delve deeper and cast off that easy way, what’s been drummed into us by tele-vision.”
Close to Coppen’s heart is the Living Within history project (with the artist Vaughn Sadie) that seeks to resurrect untold histories in Dundee, a town steeped in history with 68 battlefield sites (including Rorke’s Drift, Isandlwana and Blood River) in the vicinity. But, although the colonial history is a treasure trove of information, very little is known about black history and the history of townships such as Sibongile, 2km from Dundee.
Working with the Talana Museum, historians, community groups, re-enactors, tour guides and pupils, Coppen and Sadie staged unconventional re-enactments in public spaces around Dundee: an empty municipal pool became a floodlit battlefield; a traffic circle in the church precinct became the impromptu stage for a Shembe ritual; at the town’s curfew bell, traditional musicians gathered to sing at 10pm, the hour at which the curfew bell would toll during apartheid.
It was his immersion in the Living Within project that gave rise to Abnormal Loads (2011), in which a scene from the Anglo Boer War is re-enacted on stage.
Coppen is currently researching a new play on the artist Tretchikoff and the subject of his ubiquitous Green Lady painting. After his broad canvas works, Coppen says: “I’m quite keen to try my hand at a ‘real’ play, a two-hander in a room. And I think I’ve found a hook worth exploring.”
Omphile Molusi (32), from the village of Bodibe outside Mafikeng, is a South African success story. His work has been performed in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
His theatrical breakthrough came with Itsoseng (2006), a partly autobiographical work in progress on the fringe at the National Arts Festival.
Originally, the emotional young playwright, who performed the work himself, simply wanted to bring to the nation’s attention the plight of Itsoseng, a forgotten township near Lichtenburg that made national news for all the wrong reasons: its sky high homicide and rape statistics, and the local mortuary’s failure to cope with a stockpile of unclaimed, decomposing corpses.
Originally billed as a scathing indictment of government indifference, Molusi told me then: “You can’t eat politics.”
Itsoseng went on to the main stage at the festival and Molusi became the first recipient of the Brett Goldin Royal Shakespeare Company Bursary in 2007.
He has written several more plays. For the Right Reasons (2007) is also partly autobiographical and deals with teenage school bullying and revenge. This year, the festival will stage his latest work, Cadre, which debuted at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and then had a run at the Market Theatre Laager. It is based on his uncle Gregory, who infiltrated the Bophuthatswana police force for the Pan Africanist Congress. He was later incarcerated.
Says Molusi: “The only thing we ever learn from history is we never learn anything. After independence, [African] countries slip, forgetting what they fought for and go into corruption because they don’t listen to the people who put them there [in power] … Look at the protests going on around this country.”
Cadre, he says, has upset some audience members, “because it’s about an Apla [Azanian People’s Liberation Army] soldier. It is about land and fighting for land, and white and ANC people walk out disturbed, saying it’s very militant … Maybe they missed the point.”
As in Itsoseng, a thwarted love relationship is central to Cadre and again Molusi plays the principal role. Often his characters fail morally, but they fail because they are tested in ways that no person should be tested.
Molusi’s plays leave us wondering what is democracy and what is freedom.