/ 14 October 2023

Novel role for literature on stage

The Promise On Stage Photo Credit Claude Barnardo 69 (1)
New page: Damon Galgut’s novel ‘The Promise’, which won the Booker Prize in 2021, has been brought to life on stage by Sylvaine Strike. Photo: Claude Barnardo

South African novels and short stories have found a vibrant and dynamic home in the theatre, where they are brought to life through the alchemy of performance, creativity and interpretation. 

In this form-shifting artistic endeavour, adaptations of Chris van Wyk’s Shirley, Goodness and Mercy; Can Themba’s The Suit and Crepuscule; JM Coetzee’s The Life & Times of Michael K; Es’kia Mphahlele’s The Suitcase and, most recently, Damon Galgut’s The Promise, have enjoyed critical success for their transition onto the stage, while being box-office hits. 

But what makes the form shift so successful?

Themba’s Sophiatown-set short story The Suit is most probably the most notable South African work to have moved from its original literary form into the theatre. 

It has enjoyed various local and international stage interpretations since it was first published in 1963, none more significant than Mothobi Mutloatse and Barney Simon’s 1994 adaptation at The Market Theatre starring Sello Maake ka Ncube and Stella Khumalo. 

Other iterations include a dance production in 2002 and, just last month, a musical version. 

The Suit depicts the universal themes of betrayal, forgiveness and the weight of societal expectations. It is this combination of internal conflict, mixed with a sharply focused interpersonal conflict, against the backdrop of a difficult socio-political environment, that makes for theatre that is compelling, visceral and immediate, evoking empathy and reflection in the audience.

Van Wyk’s much-loved novel Shirley, Goodness and Mercy is an account of one boy’s special relationship with the relatives, friends and neighbours who make up his community. 

In its telling, it is often decidedly quirky, with the important coping role that laughter played during the years spent growing up in Riverlea in the thick of apartheid at its heart. 

The book was masterfully adapted in 2007 by Janice Honeyman who brought her signature storytelling wit to the work. 

The balance between Van Wyk’s autobiographical subject matter and the theatricality of Honeyman’s style, elevated by the superb performances of Christo Davids and Zane Meas, made for unforgettable theatre. 

The juxtaposition of humour and the grim backdrop of apartheid South Africa made the stage production of Shirley, Goodness and Mercy not only an enjoyable account of community life but also a poignant commentary on the resilience of the human spirit during difficult times.

James Ngcobo’s 2006 adaptation of Mphahlele’s short story The Suitcase staged a timeless narrative that explored the delicate balance between work and the horrors of life, all within the context of a poignant love story. 

Originally published in 1954, the story delved into themes of migration, identity and the struggle for dignity during the apartheid era. 

Like Honeyman’s, Ngcobo’s adaptation captured the tension between dark and light inherent in the protagonist Timi’s life, as he navigates the challenges of being an itinerant worker while trying to maintain a loving relationship with his wife. 

The play skilfully interweaved the bleak reality of South Africa with the  profound human emotions of love and longing, creating an emotionally charged theatrical experience that resonated with audiences across multiple return seasons and on a tour of the UK. 

In a restaging in 2012, Ngcobo added to the theatrical experience by incorporating live singers and a dancer. This lifted the intimate work into heightened emotional and poetic terrain, supporting the conflicted characters at the centre of it. 

Recently, Lara Foot’s collaboration with the internationally acclaimed Handspring Puppet Company resulted in a meditative adaptation of Coetzee’s novel The Life & Times of Michael K. By incorporating puppetry, the story found a theatrical language on stage — a unique perspective on the novel’s themes of resilience and survival in a fictional war-torn setting.

The use of puppets allowed the story to be owned for the theatre in a different way to how a reader might connect to the novel. 

This adaptation again demonstrates the inventiveness of South African theatre-makers and their ability to play with artistic forms.

The stage adaptation of Galgut’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Promise has just enjoyed outstanding critical acclaim and multiple sold-out performances in Cape Town before it transfers to The Market Theatre in Johannesburg next week. 

Galgut’s narrative, which delves into the themes of land, family, race and identity, across four decades of post-apartheid society, has been given an extraordinary new life by Sylvaine Strike. 

In her expert hands, The Promise on stage is dynamic and funny. The outstanding cast, which includes Frank Opperman, Chuma Sopotela, Kate Normington, Rob van Vuuren and Cintaine Schutte, makes the work as moving as it is comical, as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. 

The highly crafted adaptation allows audiences to witness the characters’ dilemmas in real time, with Strike’s emblematic theatrical signature glueing it all together in both hilarious and heart-wrenching appeal. This production serves as a further reminder that South African theatre continues to be a platform for engaging with the nation’s evolving narrative. 

The success of these stage works lies in their inherent ingredients coming from source material that represents characters grappling with conflict on three levels. The intricate web of interpersonal, internal and socio-political conflicts captures emotions that resonate deeply with audiences. 

Theatre thrives in this terrain, especially when theatricality is used to bring the story to life — where light and dark, humour and theatrical playfulness become a central counterpoint to the weighty themes. 

Ultimately, the theatrical treatment elevates the literary works, creating a visceral, lived experience live on stage. The theatre is then a crucible where the essence of the source material is distilled. 

These works are a reminder of how theatre magic can meet literary brilliance, creating an unforgettable and transformative experience for all who have the joy of witnessing these adaptations on stage.

The Promise is on stage at The Market Theatre from 18 October to 5 November. Bookings can be made via webtickets.

• Greg Homann is the Artistic Director of The Market Theatre Foundation. His influential work as an award-winning director, dramaturg, playwright, educator, and academic has positioned him as a leading figure in the South African theatrical landscape.