BWW Blog: The 51st Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards in Review
The 51st Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards were presented at the Baxter Theatre Centre in Cape Town on Sunday night in a ceremony that highlighted the theme of "new beginnings". With the main event taking place in the newly refurbished Baxter Theatre, this year's winners all received a newly designed medallion. The evening also aimed to present to the audience of theatre-makers, performers, designers, critics and patrons a fusion of cultures, an idea that was praised by John Kani, this year's recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award. In his speech, Kani commended the progress made by Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards in improving the diversity of its body of nominees and in the performances on stage.
The ceremony itself, directed by Thando Doni, was overlong. The entertainment sequences that dotted the evening took up too much time, although there was some incredible work from Lingua Franca, a group of singers led by Pedro Kruger, Die Nuwe Graskoue Trappers and the Music van de Caab Heritage Development Project with Zenobia Kloppers and Tribal Echo. The other performances, including groups like the Sibonelo Dance Company (personable, but unmemorable) and Bovim Ballet (stylish, but irrelevant) could quite frankly have been dropped in their entirety.
Hosts Africa Melane and Lynelle Kenned presented the awards, which consist of R15 000 and the silver medallion. A judging panel consisting of Beverley Brommert, Steyn du Toit Marina Griebenow, Africa Melane, Gillian Mitchell, Christine Moritz, Tracey Saunders, Peter Tromp, Herman van der Westhuizen, Johan van Lill and Eugene Yiga selected the winners from a total of 86 professional productions and 66 student performances. Melanie Burke chairs the panel.
The award for Most Promising Student was presented to Kiroshan Naidoo, who in addition to performing in course work required during his final year at the University of Cape Town, also appeared in a new production of Athol Fugard's PEOPLE ARE LIVING THERE last year. He was in competition with seven other nominees, the category having been enlarged from the typical five spots to incorporate - as said when the award was introduced - a larger number of tertiary institutions. The flawed logic that supports this expansion - that three extra spots will allow for a more representative body of nominees - can only be derived from a position in which it is assumed that some institutions are superior to others, thereby making the expansion of the category the only way for the other(ed) institutions to have access to this award. Ultimately, the number of spots available has nothing to do with who has access to a nomination, and this kind of expansion achieves little else bar devaluing the prestige of earning a nomination itself. Solving the problem of accessibility requires a shift in mindset, brain surgery rather than cosmetic surgery. Nonetheless, Naidoo is a deserving recipient of this award and it will be exciting to see his theatre career develop.
Graham Weir was the recipient of the award for Best Performance in a Revue, Cabaret or One-Person Show for DEAD YELLOW SANDS. A compelling performer, it was mentioned in the acceptance speech made on his behalf - he was not in attendance - that Weir had never won anything before, which makes this well-deserved performance award long past due.
The award for Best New South African Script went to Willem Anker for SAMSA-MASJIEN. Although I found SAMSA-MASJIEN to be deeply engaging, more so when I saw it at the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees than in its season at the Baxter last year, I felt that at least two of the other nominated scripts were stronger pieces of writing when considering the script first in isolation of and then in relation to its production. Both I TURNED AWAY AND SHE WAS GONE, by Jennie Reznek, and SIEMBAMBA, by Philip Rademeyer and Penelope Youngleson, were better scripts. I must admit to being mystified by the recognition of David Kramer's ORPHEUS IN AFRICA as one of the best five South African scripts of the past year. Even in its revised version, ORPHEUS IN AFRICA struggled with fundamental musical theatre narrative concepts, never figuring out how to structurally foreground the titular character as the chief protagonist of the piece. What truly confounds me about the piece as well as the critical conversations about it, is the inauthentic handling racial identity that is at the thematic core of ORPHEUS IN AFRICA. A whitewashing of the experience of othered ethnicities, commodified to affirm the moral code of a liberal, middle-class South African audience, ORPHEUS IN AFRICA felt as antiquated in its politics as something like Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein's 1958 take on Chinese-American identity in FLOWER DRUM SONG. So even if ORPHEUS IN AFRICA is considered the weakest of the five nominees in this category, its inclusion raises questions about what texts were excluded and especially which were excluded due to the inability of their productions to conform to the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards criteria of a run of eight performances over three weeks in the same venue. This conundrum once again points to the need to reflect continually on the accessibility and inclusivity of the awards programme itself. Despite the progress made over the past decade, there is still a long way to go.
The Rosalie van der Gucht Prize for New Directors was awarded to Mdu Kweyama for his production of Reza de Wet's MISSING, which enjoyed an extended season at the Baxter Theatre Centre last year. The Baxter was also home to seasons of plays by two of the other nominees in this category, Christo Davids and Paul Noko. That alone is a testament to what the Baxter is getting right regarding the development of the work of a range of new directors, particularly in the case of Noko, whose play FRUIT received an extended season as a piece on its own merits following its debut at the Zabalaza Theatre Festival.
When Guy de Lancey was awarded the prize for Best Lighting Design, I was reminded of an interview he gave to Gabriella Pinto of Between 10 and 5 last year decrying the kind of 'theatre lighting' based on the idea that 'actors need to be seen'. The guiding principles of lighting design in the theatre, he said, were: "What is the story about? Where are its tensions? What is its temperature? How should it feel? Remember it's a theatre. Not reality. Abstract the idea. Use the space. Leave front of house lighting to those with the mentality and skill set of an airline steward. Light is thought. Simplicity." In this interview, he also cited the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards as an obstacle facing designers, perhaps explaining his absence at the event.
The award for Best Set Design went Jaco Bouwer for SAMSA-MASJIEN, a design that certainly had style but which never let style overwhelm storytelling, which was a flaw in the designs of both Conor Murphy's WEST SIDE STORY and Marthinus Basson's MACBETH.SLAAPELOOS. It is a pity, though, that SAMSA-MASJIEN could not take advantage of the Baxter Theatre Centre's main theatre stage during its Cape Town season, as the sightlines in the Flipside left a great deal to be desired when it came to this production. SAMSA-MASJIEN also picked up the awards for Best Sound Design, Original Music Composition or Original Score, presented to Pierre-Henri Wicomb for his innovative soundscape and original score for the production. His work here was truly in a league of its own.
Somehow, Marcel Meyer's costume design for OTHELLO earned a nomination for Best Costume Design. It is as if the entire judging panel somehow forgot that the Spirit of Othello's Mother was dressed to appear like Pumba from THE LION KING had stormed an upholstery store, although the piecemeal nature of the entire design was enough to exclude it at the outset. The award went to Birrie le Roux for ORPHEUS IN AFRICA for costume design plot that truly came together to enhance the quality of the entire production.
The performance awards in the musical theatre categories were presented to Sne Dladla (Best Performance by a Supporting Actor), Jill Levenberg (Best Performance by a Supporting Actress) and Aubrey Poo (Best Performance by a Lead Actor) for ORPHEUS IN AFRICA and Lynelle Kenned (Best Performance by a Lead Actress) for WEST SIDE STORY. Kenned was also nominated against herself for her work in ORPHEUS IN AFRICA, in which I felt she gave the better of her two performances with her Mattie being just that much more fully realised than her Maria. A full house of awards in these categories for ORPHEUS IN AFRICA would have been justified in any case: the performances in the show elevated the material beyond its limited approach to identity politics, holding together what could otherwise quite easily have fallen apart.
In the four categories for non-musical plays, the award for Best Performance by a Supporting Actor went to Sven Ruygrok for his breakthrough performance in EPSTEIN: THE MAN WHO MADE THE BEATLES, that for Best Performance by a Supporting Actress to Cintaine Schutte for DIE SEEMEEU, that for Best Performance by a Lead Actor to Gerben Kemper for SAMSA-MASJIEN and that for Best Performance by a Lead Actress in a Play to Sandra Prinsloo for DIE SEEMEEU. These awards honoured a fantastic set of performances in four categories that were full of memorable performances - although it is a pity there was not room for Faniswa Yisa's standout performance in BORN IN THE RSA among the nominees.
The final award, for Best Director, was presented to Jaco Bouwer for SAMSA-MASJIEN. While his work was excellent and his win defendable, the fact that there were four men nominees up against one woman in this category highlights a couple of particular crises in local theatre. Women directors are not recognised for the work they do, even when they are doing work that far surpasses those of their male counterparts. The same can be said of directors who are not white. The number of times we see women directors, or directors who are not white, helming productions at major theatres in Cape Town is shamingly few. One of the few women who managed to be hired for the kind of production that is eligible for the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards was Thoko Ntshinga, who directed BORN IN THE RSA at the Baxter Theatre Centre. Perhaps theatre directing is a misunderstood discipline in any case, for her work on that piece surpassed that of at least two of the nominees in this category: David Kramer's purely functional work on ORPHEUS IN AFRICA and Marthinus Basson's work on MACBETH.SLAPELOOS, which never achieved the transformation of the text that seemed to be that production's intention. Then again, BORN IN THE RSA was completely snubbed by the Fleur du Cap panel, so it seems there are a number of dynamics at play here - but in the final account, the skill and work of women directors and directors of colour need to be given attention equal to that afforded to the work of their white male counterparts.
The evening also saw a special tribute made towards Irma Albers, who is bidding farewell to her active involvement in the Fleur du Cap Awards. She was presented with an award that was titled "A Heart for the Arts", as much an acknowledgement of Albers's more than two-decade long involvement in the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards as it is of her support of the creative sector. Panel member Herman van der Westhuizen was also given a warm send-off during the ceremony, with this being his final year as a Fleur du Cap Theatre Award judge. The event also paid tribute to people in the arts industry who have passed away in an In Memorium sequence accompanied by Anele Mhlahlo on violin and Naresh Chauhan on sitar.
While there certainly has been progress in the past decade, access to the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards as a measure of theatrical excellence remains problematic. There is still not enough of a focus on community theatre (although a special award for Innovation in Theatre was presented to the phenomenal Zabalaza Theatre Festival), there is still no recognition of theatre created for young audiences (although the outstanding work of Assitej in this regard was mentioned in the presenters' links), and there is no recognition of choreography for dance theatre (although there was plenty of dance in evidence in the evening's performances). It is time for the Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards not only to address these challenges but also to take action to find strategies that remediate the problem of accessibility when it comes to the awards.
The Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards are marketed as being amongst the most coveted in the South African performing arts fraternity and winners are chosen from productions performed at about 15 venues in and around Cape Town. Theatre practitioners are recognised for acting, directing, staging and technical abilities. The panel of judges furthermore considers an individual, company or organisation in the theatre industry that has consistently created exceptional and innovative work.