2012 South African Theatre Retrospective: The Plays
With BroadwayWorld's own list of the "Top South Africa Theatre Stories of 2012" having appeared recently, there is no better time to reflect on the productions that have appeared on South African stages over the past 12 months. The first of this series of four columns takes a look at the plays, while subsequent articles will focus on musical theatre and opera; comedy and cabaret; and dance and physical theatre. Today's column will feature a baker's dozen of the most compelling theatre productions that have appeared on stage around the country this year, with input from several of South Africa's actors, theatre owners and producers, each of whom has selected their own theatrical highlights of 2012.
New plays included those written for the Artscape's Eighth Spring Drama season, which yielded CHAMP by Louis Viljoen and a new piece from Nicholas Spagnoletti, SPECIAL THANKS TO GUESTS FROM AFAR. The former dealt with the antics of a group of struggling actors working in a shopping mall in an oversized bear suit, while the latter told the tale of two old friends meeting up at a wedding, with the appearance of the groom's brother prompting a no-holds-barred examination of their relationship. Tara Notcutt, the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Pink Couch, picked CHAMP, which was directed by Greg Karvellas as 'a show which rocked [her] party': 'Louis is one of my favourite SA writers, and CHAMP is my favourite of his plays yet.'
Smaller venues were also buzzing with new plays, including CREPUSCULE at the Arts Admin Collective and THE VIEW at the Intimate Theatre. CREPUSCULE was a dramatic interpretation of a real life love affair across the boundaries of race set against the backdrop of Sophiatown in the 1950s, brought to life on stage by Khayelihle Dom Gumede, the winner of the Theatre Arts Admin Collective's Emerging Theatre Director's Bursary. Director of Fourword Productions, Oskar Brown, identified CREPUSCULE as his theatre pick of the year: 'It was a really engaging and exciting piece of South African theatre, presented in a true South African way, stripping the stage as bare as possible and not hiding the actors behind complicated set, lights and props, with great acting and great directing.'
Rust Co-operative's THE VIEW featured prominently on social media, selling itself largely on word of mouth, proving that Facebook and Twitter are valuable and essential implements in the theatre marketing toolbox. Written and directed by Philip Rademeyer, the play translated into theatrical form recent comments by an American pastor who stated that gays and lesbians should be contained in isolated enclosures and then killed.
Controversial themes were also tackled in Gina Shmukler's THE LINE at the Market Theatre, which dealt with trauma related to the xenophobic attacks that took place in South Africa in 2008. Freelance actress, Candice van Litsenborgh, who is also the co-owner of Canned Rice Productions, selected THE LINE as one of the plays that stood out for her this past year: 'It's verbatim theatre lifted directly from interviews she conducted with various South Africans speaking about xenophobia and it reminded me a lot of Anna Deavere Smith's work in TWILIGHT, which dealt with the LA riots. The two young actresses emulated the characteristics and speech patterns of real people - male and female, young and old, black and white - as they shared their experiences and stories on one subject. It's coming to the Baxter next year and I hope to catch it again and see how it has grown.'
The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown was, as always, a fertile testing ground for new South African plays. One of several productions that impressed at the Fringe Festival this year was THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. Simon Cooper, co-owner of Kalk Bay Theatre and co-founder of KBT Productions, picked the play, which was directed by Tara Notcutt and performed by Albert Pretorius, James Cairns and Rob van Vuuren, as one of the best productions he saw in 2012, calling it 'a South African politico-drama that is without doubt the most insidiously sinister thing on stage for years, [that] takes the shenanigans of the ANC and their fellow travellers and lays them bare.' The play, which moulds contemporary South African politics into a play where ANIMAL FARM meets RESERVOIR DOGS, will tour extensively in 2013, starting with a season at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town next month.
Cooper also ranked one of the Main Festival presentations, SUNDAY MORNING, as a favourite alongside THE THREE LITTLE PIGS, admiring how the play took 'a simple story of everyday life and, with brilliant acting (from James Cuningham), amazing direction (by Jenine Collocott) and a magnificent script (by Nick Warren), turned it into the most important story you have ever heard with insights into the human condition that are eye-opening.' SUNDAY MORNING told the story of Mat, a successful photographer whose life appears perfect until the day his girlfriend tells him she is pregnant. A jog taken to process this announcement turns into a life-changing experience when he strays from his regular route and ventures into a strange part of the city where he makes a gruesome discovery.
Two other plays that also made an impression on the Main Festival were the stylistically diverse productions of MIES JULIE and RED. Yael Farber retooled August Strindberg's MISS JULIE as MIES JULIE in a production that, under the auspices of the Baxter Theatre, has toured the country and the world. Steven Stead, Executive Director of KickstArt Theatre, picked this piece, which expands the master-servant relationship politics that is the foundation of Strindberg's original into a metaphor dealing with land claims in South Africa - 'a restitution of body and soil' - as his favourite production of the year. Stead himself directed the play I enjoyed most this year, John Logan's RED, which deals with the life and art of Mark Rothko. Performed by Michael Richard and Jeremy Richard, the play looks at the nature of art and the universal human desire to connect that drives the artist to create his work and it was wonderful to see a local company triumph with a contemporary Tony Award-winning Best Play. In addition to performances in Grahamstown, the play also played Durban, Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Another contemporary play of international origins that made a huge impression locally was THE BROTHERS SIZE by Tarell Alvin McCraney, which played in both The Market and Baxter Theatres. Infusing elements of the West African Yoruba culture into its makeup, the Louisiana-set play told the story of the hardworking and steady Ogun Size and his aimless younger brother, Oshoosi. Marcel Meyer, the joint founder and artistic director of Abrahamse & Meyer Productions, singled out the play as his personal highlight of the year, calling it 'a brilliant new play by a very exciting new American playwright in the mould of America's legendry poet-playwrights, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill.' Meyer continues: 'It's great to know there are young playwrights of his calibre writing for the stage today. The production itself was beautifully directed, designed and lit and the performances were a master-class in acting: such an inspiring production.'
While contemporary plays like these made their mark on the theatre scene, the classics also made their presence felt around the country. Sylvaine Strike revived Moliére's THE MISER with Lionel Newton in the titular role at the Market Theatre, while Shakespeare's THE COMEDY OF ERRORS was presented at Maynardville under the direction of Matthew Wild, featuring Nicholas Pauling, Andrew Laubscher, Rob van Vuuren and James Cairns as the two sets of twins at the centre of the play. Tennessee Williams's KINGDOM OF EARTH, directed by Fred Abrahamse, toured overseas before premiering in South Africa in December. Rarely seen on stage, the play resonates well with South African themes, and the remarkable production and performances (by Anthea Thompson, Nicholas Dallas and Marcel Meyer) made the production memorable. There are still a few performances of KINGDOM OF EARTH left at the Artscape Arena if you want to bring your theatre-viewing season to a memorable and compelling close.
In a few days, the 2013 theatre season kicks off and things looks set to be just as exciting as they have been 2012. Look out for a feature early on in the New Year where we take a look at what is in store for both locals and tourists in the upcoming months.
Want to share your thoughts on the best plays you saw around South Africa over the past year? Leave your comments beneath this article and let us celebrate together the cultural heritage that is being created for future generations of the South African audiences.