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2013 South African Theatre Retrospectives: South African Revivals and Productions of International Plays

2014 will soon be upon us, so there is no better time to look back at some of the productions that appeared on stage in South Africa in 2013. This is the second in a series of four retrospective columns reflecting on the past year's theatre season, all of which feature comments from members of South Africa's theatre community. Today's column focuses on revivals of classic South African plays and local productions the work of international playwrights, with the first having taken a look at original South African theatre. The final three columns will deal with comedy, variety and storytelling; musical theatre, opera and cabaret; and dance and physical theatre.

Revivals of classic protest theatre plays, notably Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona's THE ISLAND, Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema's WOZA ALBERT! and Ngema's ASINAMALI were also seen, in Johannesburg under the banner of the Market Theatre as well as at the National Arts Festival.

Directed by Kani, one of its original creators, THE ISLAND tells the story of two men imprisoned on Robben Island. AS they rehearse for a performance of Sophocles' ANTIGONE, parallels are drawn between the politics and patriarchal government of apartheid South Africa and those of the play. The production starred Atandwa Kani and Nat Ramabulana.

WOZA ALBERT! is an iconic South African play that ponders what might have happened had Jesus Christ returned to South Africa during the apartheid era. The play is one of the prescribed texts in the national Dramatic Arts curriculum and seeing the play live was a highlight for high school pupil, Kirsten Jacobs, who was one of the heads of the Culture Club at Springfield Convent Senior School. She said: 'The extreme physicality of the actors who brought the story to life blew me away. A simple prop such as a box transformed into a bench, a meat vendor's cart, drums and train seats. The actors effectively portrayed humour in their actions, effortlessly making the audience laugh with every movement.' Directed by Prince Lamla, the play was brought to life by Mncedisi Baldwin Shabangu and Peter Mashigo.

Lamla also directed ASINAMALI, which explores the lives of five black prisoners who meet one another in prison. Taking its inspiration from the rent strike in 1983 Lamontville township rent strike, the title of the play can be translated as "We have no money!"

Another classic that was revived, in Cape Town at the Fugard Theatre, was Fugard's "MASTER HAROLD"... AND THE BOYS, which takes a look at the relationship between a young white boy (played by Alex Middlebrook) and a black man (Tshamano Sebe), who has become something of a father figure to him and how the destructive force of apartheid ripped apart even the most personal interracial relationships. The production was directed by Kim Kerfoot.

Another major revival was that of SADAKO, which used puppetry to bring to life the true story of a young Japanese girl, Sadako Sasaki, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima only to contract leukaemia a decade later as a consequence of being exposed to radiation during the blast and its aftermath. Scripted by Peter Hayes and directed by Jacqueline Dommisse, the play featured puppets designed by Janni Younge. Lauren de Bruyn, one of the heads of Springfield Convent Senior School's Culture Club, enjoyed seeing 'something different from the usual Western stories'. She continues: 'SADAKO was one of the best shows that I saw this year. The use of puppets was unusual but powerful and evoked so much emotion. It was nice to go to a show that focused on a unique culture.'

Revivals of more recent plays were also seen. One of these, Nicholas Spagnoletti's LONDON ROAD, was hailed as a contemporary classic in its original production a couple of years ago and continued to win over the hearts of audiences as it returned to South African and international stages this year. Robyn Scott and Ntombi Makhutshi recreated their roles and Lara Bye's original staging.

Oskar Brown caught the show at the Edinburgh Festival: 'Edinburgh featured an entire South African season at one of the venues. It was great to see so much of 'our' theatre represented there. My heart swells with pride when I think of Robyn Scott and LONDON ROAD. We should hold on to our international talent, because South African actors, directors, writers and theatre-makers are becoming hot property. By letting them out of our grasp, the world may become more aware of our theatre, but we will also lose precious talent. We should continue to grow what we have and not let the world harvest too soon."

Self-styled cultural activist Mike van Graan's BROTHERS IN BLOOD, was another contemporary South African play revived this year, with seasons in Cape Town, Grahamstown and Durban. Following the stories of five individuals, BROTHERS IN BLOOD is set during the period of social unrest and paranoia in 1998, the result of drug-related gang warfare, a spike in violent criminal acts and multiple bombings across the city. David Dennis played Abubaker Abrahams, a man who is caught up in these tensions when his daughter becomes romantically involved with a Somalian refugee.

One of the most interesting revivals mounted this year was UCT Drama's production of Herbert Dhlomo's UNONGQAWUSE, THE GIRL WHO KILLED TO SAVE. A depiction of a disturbing chapter of South African history, namely the 1850s Xhosa cattle-killing movement and the subsequent famine during which tens of thousands of men, women and children perished, the play seems was given a revisionist production by Mfundo Tshazibane. With some further refinement, UNONGQAWUSE has the potential to become a noteworthy re-interrogation of a classic South African text in full-scale professional production.

Local productions of international plays and projects by international theatre-makers also left a marked impression in the minds of South African audiences. One of the greatest performances of this year was delivered by Jennifer Steyn in a rare production of Tennessee Williams's THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE. A follow-up to Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer's production of KINGDOM OF EARTH in 2012, the play deals with the final days of Flora "Sissy" Goforth, a character that - taken on its own terms - ranks right up there with Blanche du Bois and Maggie the Cat. Steyn was resplendent in the role, disappearing so deeply into the character that it was shocking to see her emerge looking like a completely different person during the curtain call. She was joined on stage by Meyer, along with Roelof Storm and Nicholas Dallas.

Another key role for women - and a much more recent one that that - was seen in Colm Tóibín'sTHE TESTAMENT OF MARY, produced by Yellow Bunny Productions for a run in Johannesburg. Lynne Maree directed Patricia Boyer in the titular role and the production courted contoversy here in South Africa just as it did in its recent New York run.

One production that captivated Steven Stead, Executive Director of KickstArt Theatre, was a production of John Patrick Shanley's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning drama, DOUBT. 'Forensically directed by James Cuningham, with astounding performances by Fiona Ramsay, James Alexander, Janna Ramos-Violante and Faniswa Yisa,' Stead said, 'this beautifully realised production premiered at the Witness Hilton Arts Festival in September this year, and at present there are no plans for it to run anywhere else in the country. This is a great pity, as work of this quality doesn't come around very often and deserves to be seen.' Shanley's play deals with the suspicions of a nun, who believes that the parish priest who serves the school of which she is principal has molested one of the altar boys.

Stead himself directed Ramos-Violante in a production of of French farce DON'T DRESS FOR DINNER. Exquisitely designed by Greg King, the production switched up the original French farmhouse setting for a holiday lodge near the Kruger Park, localising the tale of a foolish man who tries to organise a tryst with his mistress under his wife's nose, using a friend's visit as a cover for his adulterous plans. The production was characterised by an infective light-heartedness, with audiences left to wonder from the theatre with smiles on their faces and a chuckles in their throats. Ramos-Violante was joined on stage by James Cuningham, Natasha Sutherland, Emily Child, Robert Fridjhon and Nhlakanipho Manqele.

A second production that involved both Stead and Ramos-Violante was one of David Ives's kinky and clever play, VENUS IN FUR. Ramos-Violante was joined on stage by Neil Coppen, who played a playwright who is thrown a curveball when a mysterious actress arrives late for an audition for his new play, which is based on Leopold van Sacher-Masoch's 1870 novel, VENUS IN FURS. What follows is a deconstruction of the semiotics of erotic literature, of perceptions of the BDSM culture as a lifestyle founded in misogyny and of the act of making theatre, itself a representative art form that often relies on a negotiation of the boundary between dominance and submission.

KBT Productions also offered a play looking at relationships through the lens of marriage and adultery with a production of Bernard Slade's SAME TIME, NEXT YEAR. Focusing on two people, both married to others, who meet for a romantic rendezvous once each year, the 1975 play was one of KBT producer Simon Cooper's favourite in-house projects: 'the chemistry between Paul du Toit and Julie Hartley was brilliant!'

Roland Perold, Cape Town based composer and founder of ROLSKA Productions, selected the independently produced TAPE as one of his picks for the year. Written by Stephen Belber, the play reunites two old friends, Vince and Jon, who once dated a girl from their hometown, Amy. Vince reveals to Jon that Amy told him that Jon date raped her and attempts to get him to confess. When Amy arrives, later in the evening, multiple truths are revealed as the play takes a couple of unexpected twists. Of the production, Perold says: 'I was really impressed by the detailed performances and the direction of TAPE, which I caught at its second run at The Alexander Bar. The dedication from this small group of actors, also forming the creative team, brought us a compact and exciting version of this interesting text.'

Further opportunities for exploring international plays were offered by Chase the Sun's Play Club initiative, which meets monthly for a reading of new and established plays drawn from the libraries of world theatre. Some of the plays that were featured in this "book club for theatre lovers" were Mike Daisey's THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY OF Steve Jobs, Ken Ludwig's LEND ME A TENOR, David Lindsay Abaire's GOOD PEOPLE, Agatha Christie's AND THEN THERE WERE NONE and Tony Kushner's ANGELS IN AMERICA.

In a few days, the 2014 theatre season will begin with theatres filling their stages with all kinds of productions. Which revivals and plays of international origin did you enjoy most over the past year? And which would you like to see on our stages in the seasons to come? Leave your comments in the box beneath this article - and be sure to visit BroadwayWorld when our next retrospective, looking at musical theatre, opera and cabaret, goes live.

Photo credit: Pat Bromilow-Downing (THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE)


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