2013 South African Theatre Retrospectives: New South African Plays

With the end of 2013 fast creeping up upon us, it is once again time to look back at some of the key productions that have appeared on stage in South Africa during the past 12 months. This is the first in a series of five retrospective columns looking back at the past year, all of which feature comments from members of South Africa's theatre community. Today's column focuses on original South African theatre, with pieces focusing respectively on revivals of classic South African plays and local productions of the work of international playwrights; comedy, variety and storytelling; musical theatre, opera and cabaret; and physical theatre and dance and all lined up for the next week.

Original work by South African theatre-makers featured prominently in the past theatre season, with several plays that debuted last year gaining momentum with further runs at festivals and theatre venues across the country.

Robin Malan, the owner and manager of Junkets Publisher, a company that specialises in new South African plays, selected Philip Dikotla's SKIERLIK, which was performed at the Baxter Theatre Centre's Golden Arrow Studio and at the National Arts Festival, as his personal highlight of the past year. Malan describes his reaction to the play: 'One of those pieces - like Lara Foot's TSHEPANG, where you say, "How can you make a piece of theatre out of this?" - in this case, the unprovoked shooting into a whole community of black people by a single white boy. What Dikotla does so expertly is take the sprawling headlines his newspaper-vendor character Thomas speaks of, the big generalisations, and he pulls the focus in and in and in, he particularises it, to just Thomas and his wife Anna and their infant daughter Elizabeth. And that's where the theatre, the drama, the catharsis, resides. It's beautifully written, and Dikotla is also a consummate actor, with eyes, face, hands and body that mesmerise. It's a very powerful piece: I sat, dazed, afterwards.'

Malan also listed Oskar Brown's gay drama, BETWEEN, and Atandwa Kani and Nat Ramabulana's HAYANI amongst his picks for the year, as well as a play that popped up as one of last year's favourites, Philip Rademeyer's THE VIEW, which was performed at the Artscape Arena this year. THE VIEW is based on an idea articulated by an American pastor, who stated that gays and lesbians should be contained in isolated enclosures, thus eliminating the moral degeneration that homosexuals instigate in society. Arts publicist, Christine Skinner, also named THE VIEW as one of her highlights for the year 'for its magnificent text and utterly compelling performances from Gideon Lombard and Ella Gabriel.'

THE VIEW was one of several original plays that continued to make an impact in its second year of performances. Two other plays that continued to build on solid 2012 debuts as they made their way around the country were THE THREE LITTLE PIGS and THE LINE.

THE THREE LITTLE PIGS is - in the words of Simon Cooper, the owner of Kalk Bay Theatre and a producer at KBT Productions - 'a totally convincing, sinister look at corruption in SA'. The play was created by director, Tara Notcutt, in collaboration with the cast, James Cairns, Albert Pretorius and Rob van Vuuren and constructs an allegorical narrative based in contemporary South African politics, in what could be described as a fusion of ANIMAL FARM and RESERVOIR DOGS. Having at its premiere at the National Arts Festival in 2012, the play toured extensively this year, starting with a season at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town before moving to other venues, both locally and internationally. The effectiveness of the show is such that Cooper selected THE THREE LITTLE PIGS as one of his theatrical picks of the season for the second year running: 'I know this was one of my highlights last year but it still is.'

Gina Shmukler's THE LINE, selected by award-winning writer, director, actor and designer Neil Coppen (who is the Artistic Director of Think Theatre), deals with trauma related to the xenophobic attacks that took place in South Africa in 2008. Coppen says that the play was one of the most effecting theatrical experiences of the year for him, with its 'beautiful direction, performances and design and a powerful reconstruction and re-telling of events.' He continues: 'I thought Khutjo Green and Gabi Harris were impeccable on stage together. The documentary theatre style (using actual testimony as text) is seldom employed in SA and watching THE LINE, I was reminded of how powerful this mode of theatre making and storytelling can be, especially in a local context. I intend to begin dabbling in documentary theatre in 2014, so this was a great affirmation of what can be achieved with a crack theatrical team.' THE LINE ran at the the Baxter theatre, at the National Arts Festival and at the Hilton Festival this year following its debut at the Market Theatre last year.

Two of the other plays that made their mark on the South African theatre scene were Joanna Evans's THE YEAR OF THE BICYCLE, a touching exploration of the post-apartheid condition in South Africa through the eyes of the country's youth and Mike van Graan's RAINBOW SCARS, set against a similar backdrop, but dealing with the experiences of a white mother and her adopted, "born-free" black daughter. A third play that dealt with the effects of South Africa's past on its present was Khayelilhe Dom Gumede's MILK AND HONEY, which looked at the continuing repercussions of the 1913 Land Act.

Original homegrown theatre also made its presence felt at the Brighton and Edinburgh Fringe Festivals in 2013. Oskar Brown attended both festivals and one of the productions he enjoyed there was Jon Keevy's OWL. OWL - a beautifully crafted coming of age story about a girl, Olivia, who moves to the Overberg and grows up in the middle of nowhere - has been trying to build momentum since its initial production. Brown felt that OWL, which was superbly performed by Briony Horwitz, 'deserved more audience to go with the wonderful reviews.'

Moving to the lighter side of things, one of the plays that caught people's imaginations was WRONGLY ACCUSED, Waseef Piekaan's comic one-man monologue which opened at the Masambe Theatre at the Baxter Theatre Centre last month. Of the show - a story about a young man from the De Doorns community who is wrongly accused of a crime at a cell phone shop - and its dynamic performaer, Malan enthuses: 'How wonderful to see a young man as brilliant as this! Moves like a charm, vocally does wonders of impersonation from one character to another to another to another, the face and the eyes create real whole people in front of our eyes. And the writing is excellent. Obviously deservedly, he won the Best Actor Award at the 2013 Zabalaza Festival. Waseef Piekaan is a name I'll not forget.'

James Cairns also left an impression with his one-man show, DIRT, which was written by British expat Nick Warren, who is currently based in Johannesburg. The play tells the tale of three estranged friends who are reunited at the funeral of a fourth. Actress Ella Gabriel described the piece as 'spell-binding': 'Not only was it a moving story of friendship and loss, but it was also a truly inspiring showcase of a local actor's unbelievable ability to transform with exceptional precision, form and speed without forfeiting a moment of truth or depth.'

Character transformations were also a feature of THE THINGS YOU LEFT BEHIND by Jason Potgieter, which was performed by the playwright and Alicia McCormick. The collection of monologues elevated the rather mundane affair of a break-up by allowing it to be a vehicle that offers insight into life, class and culture in contemporary South Africa.

Another comic piece, BENCH by Brent Palmer, which had brief runs at Alexander Upstairs and The Fugard Theatre this year after a premiere run in 2012, was the pick of theatre-maker, director and production manager Greg Karvellas, who runs the Dark Red Production Company with Louis Viljoen. Of the play, which deals with a day in the life of two petty thieves on a bench in the Company Gardens, where they are planning to pull off a heist at the National Gallery, Karvellas says: 'I am a huge fan of watching two characters talk and the wonder of simple conversations between two people which reveals an entire world, even if it's just on a bench in a park and about two people the world doesn't care about - in fact especially those conversations.'

Karvallas and Viljoen, as director and writer respectively, scored big with their own comic triumph, CHAMP, a delightfully and unashamedly foul-mouthed comedy that placed the humiliation of three actors forced to work in a shopping mall in oversized bear suits front and centre. The play was performed with vigour by Mark Elderkin, Nick Pauling, Oliver Booth, Pierre Malherbe and Jenny Stead in a run at The Fugard Theatre early on in the year.

Finally, Steven Stead, the Executive Director of KickstArt Theatre, selected a new play by Rosalind Butler, which premiered at the Hilton Festival, before running at the Theatre on the Square in Johannesburg, as one of his theatre picks for the year. He said that UNROMANTIC COMEDY - which dramatises the awkward evening experienced by a man who plans a romantic dinner only to have his ex-girlfriend arrive unexpectedly - was 'a fantastic, fiercely funny new play' that featured 'hilarious performances from Charmaine Weir Smith and Anthony Coleman, expertly directed by Craig Freidmont'. Summing up the piece in two words, Stead said that it was 'just perfect!'

In a few days, the 2014 theatre season kicks off and things looks set to be just as exciting as they have been 2013. 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 we are creating for the generations of the future.

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From This Author David Fick