Monthly Archives: July 2012

A Storm Is Coming: South African Theatre On The Fringe

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on SOUTH AFRICA AT THE FRINGE, 2012 for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 12.7.12
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AT THE GLEAMING NEW theatre in Soweto – opened just three weeks ago – things are running a little late. The building is splendid, a three-auditorium multiplex with a spectacular wave-shaped entrance canopy, perched on a slope above the vast low-rise expanse of the world’s most famous township, with its sea of twinking lights. Inside, though, the mood is relaxed, as the Soweto Comedy Festival gradually moves into gear in the biggest of the three theatres, the Red Box.

The almost all-black audience looks affluent, comfortable, out for a good time. And one of the first acts on stage is white Jewish comedian David Levinsohn, who – in the run-up to his first-ever vist to Edinburgh, this August – wows the crowd with a hilarious five minutes on the absurd sights to be seen in his local Virgin Active gym; the audience assures him that there’s also now a Virgin Active in Soweto, and some even confess to having been there.

Yet an hour later – and 30 minutes’ drive away, around Johannesburg’s vast network of freeways – Levinsohn is doing another set, in front of a completely different crowd at Parker’s Comedy Club, in the surreal setting of the Montecasino Casino Complex, in the affluent northern suburbs. Here, the crowd is almost entirely white; and Levinsohn delivers a more hard-hitting and increasingly absurdist set, about a form of cheap processed meat often eaten by poor white famlies in South Africa.

Together with his black fellow-comedian Loyiso Gola – famous across South Africa for his satirical television news programme, Late Night News – Levinsohn will be appearing in Edinburgh in an evening of new South African comedy called Barely Legal. And the very format of the show – put together by young South African comedy producer Rabin Harduth – speaks volumes about the continuing divisions, tensions, and creative energy of South African society, 18 years on from the country’s first democratic elections, and the end of apartheid.

“It’s as if we’re living in a country where everything has changed, and yet in some ways nothing has changed,” says Harduth, as he drives me past the low-rise townships and glittering, high-rise gated developments that mark out the new landscape of Johannesburg. “We no longer have formal apartheid, but we have this fierce rush towards material wealth and affluence, where it’s all about what car you drive, and whether you can afford to live in one of these glitzy new developments. And although a minority of black people are successful in that rat-race, millions are left behind, to become ever more excluded, angry and resentful.”

Which is why this year’s season of South African theatre and comedy at the Fringe – supported by the British Council and Willam Burdett-Coutts’s Assembly Productions – involves such an explosive mixture of fierce new work, and restless revisiting of classic texts from the great age of the struggle against aapartheid, a struggle whose ideals, according to many artists, are now being betrayed. Perhaps the most striking new work is Mies Julie, writer-director Yael Farber’s brilliant, graphic and superbly-acted re-write, for the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town, of the great Strindberg classic Miss Julie, about a landowner’s daughter whose life is destroyed by an impulsive sexual encounter with one of her father’s male servants.

“I wanted to write something that would look at what is most pressing for our country at this time,” says Farber. “And the core issue that is not addressed is land redistribution, because the ownership of land was the cornerstone of apartheid, and the pace of restitution over the past 18 years has been glacial, completely unsuccessful.

“So a storm is coming; and I wanted to create a version of the story that would focus tightly on this issue, on the anger of John and his people over the loss of the land that was once theirs, and on Julie’s terror of losing it in turn. Nowadays, people find it hard to believe that anyone could die, or want to die, because of inter-racial sex. But the land issue – that is a matter of life and death, right now.”

If some young people find the violence and extremity of South Africa’s recent history hard to credit, though, the theatre community is now working fiercely to fill those gaps in public memory. The season in Edinburgh also includes an acclaimed revival of Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act, Athol Fugard’s sensational 1972 study of a naked mixed-race couple arrested and interrogated, under apartheid laws, after being discovered making love in a deserted library at nght. There’s a version of Zakes Mda’s early 90’s play And The Girls in Their Sunday Dresses, directed by rising young star of South African theatre Princess Zinzi Mhlongo.

And there is a revival, from the legendary Market Theatre in Johannesburg, of the great Woza Albert!, a mighty piece of “poor theatre”, for just two actors, about what happens when Jesus visits South Africa. Created by Percy Mtwa, Mbongemi Ngema and Barney Simon, Woza Albert! was hailed as a vital turning-point in the battle against apartheid at time of its sensational first visit to Edinburgh, at the Traverse Theatre in 1982.

“You can’t update this play,” says Prince Lamla, the young drector of the new production, fresh from a background n communty theatre in his Orange Free State home town, “because the details of the story belong to the early 1980’s. Yet this is still a beautifully-made play, a kind of collage, about an instantly recognisable human story of poverty, and lack of education, and a society where the rich get richer, while the poor get poorer.

“So when it comes to the final scene of this play, where the two characters are in the graveyard with the saviour, it has a terrific force for audiences today. Woza! means rise up!, and they begin to raise all the great heroes of the anti-apartheid struggle from the dead; woza Albert Luthuli, woza Robert Sisulu, woza Steve Biko. And yes, there is a great longing for the memory of these great leaders in South Africa now, because people feel so disillusioned with the leaders they have today. Back in the Nineties, we could say that Nelson Mandela was our saviour, our “murena”; now, we don’t know. But I believe so much in the power of theatre to ask those questions, to open up dialogue, and to help people to begin to talk.”

South Africa season at Assembly on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, 4-27 August; full detals at

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Romeo And Juliet (Botanics), Rope, Private Lives

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on ROMEO AND JULIET at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, ROPE at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, and PRIVATE LIVES at Oran Mor, Glasgow, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 5.7.12
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Romeo And Juliet 4 stars ****
Rope 3 stars ***
Private Lives 4 stars ****

WHEN IT COMES TO DECODING THE HISTORY of the 20th century, there are plenty of theatrical strategies available, from outright nostalgic celebration, to the kind of deliberate collision with much older classics that is often deeply revealing; and the whole range of responses to the ferocious century just past is on view in Scottsh theatre this week.

So at the rain-soaked Botanic Gardens in Glasgow, the Bard In The Botanics season follows up its traditional-looking but fascinatingly Tempest with a short, youthful Romeo And Juliet, set by director Gordon Barr on a fierce collision-course with a street culture that seems rooted in the pork-pie-hat-and-braces mood of the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Romeo And Juliet die to the sound of the Tori Amos version of the huge 1979 Boomtown Rats hit, I Don’t Like Mondays; and rock music with the same streetwise aesthetic punctuates the action, as the Friar’s cell is transformed into a burned-out car inhabited by a priest in a hoodie, and the street-fighting boys of Verona turn out in leather jackets, t-shirts and DM’s.

Presented under canvas in a memorably ugly wire-fence pen at the back of the Kibble Palace – or, much better, inside the Kibble in the event of heavy rain – this bold version of the play has a predictably hit-and-miss relationship with the original. The street-fighting is excellent, with a shocking feel of real danger, as the boys whip tiny, lethal knives out of their pockets; the role of the Friar, on the other hand, seems more or less incomprehensible, and – given a cast of four men and one woman – the Capulet family dynamics that make Juliet’s plight so shocking lose most of their force.

At the centre of the play, though, there’s a desperate teenage love story that really works, beautifully navigated by James Rottger as a bullet-headed Romeo, and a brilliant Stephanie McGregor as Juliet, a little vocally rushed, but full of wit and understanding, and therefore all the more poignant, as her story darkens into tragedy. And in Glasgow, of all cities, this is a tale that never seems out of date; of young lives ended too soon by the single stroke of a blade, and of all the spiralling nightmare of grief and revenge that follows.

At Pitlochry, by contrast, Patrick Hamilton’s fascinating 1929 thriller Rope is given a production so stiffly confined in its own period that it loses much of its resonance. Set in a first-floor drawing room in Mayfair during a single evening in that year, Rope tells the story of Brandon and Granillo, two repellent young Oxford men of twenty or so who have killed an innocent friend for the sheer of thrill of it, and brought his body back to Brandon’s flat, where they have stashed it in a chest in the drawing room. Brandon’s plan is to use the chest as a table for a macabre supper-party, involving two young jolly young friends, and the dead man’s innocent old father and aunt.

At Pitlochry, Richard Baron’s eight-strong cast plod their way through the story with as much energy as they can muster, under the circumstances; Charlie Tighe is not bad as the panic-stricken Granillo, and deals as best he can with the production’s half-hearted hints at a gay relationship between the two young men .

Given the play’s striking reflection on the right-wing politics of the time though – on ideas about the Nietzschean superman, and the redundancy of ordinary “bourgeois” morality – it seems a shame to have it presented in a such a banal, nostalgic style, on a heavy period set with just a touch of Oscar-Wilde decadence. Even the smallest sense of political context – in the set, in the soundscape, or the odd visual image – might have lifted the whole production, and given the cast a greater sense of purpose around which to build their performances. As it stands, though, the show is one of those period pieces that ends up being about very little except costumes, accents and decor, and how well the various actors can model a cigarette-holder.

And then there is a third way of reflecting on the 20th century; which is to take one of its dramatic masterpieces, whip it out of time altogether, and play it for dear life, as if it had been written yesterday. This is the technique preferred by Jennifer Hainey and Susan Worsfold, the adaptor and director behnd this week’s lunchtime Classic Cut at Oran Mor; and their 55-minute version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives is a real triumph, a fine, thoughtful and penetrating production of one of the most familiar plays in the canon.

The essence of the show’s success lies in its grasp of the fact that if wealthy good-time people like Coward’s Elyot and Amanda once seemed to have faded into history, or at least to have become less central to the story of our society, they have made a serious comeback in recent years. There’s something about their restless travelling, their boredom, their affluence, and their easy citizenship of the world, that powerfully recalls the great credit-card years of the boom that ended in 2008; something about their preoccupation with pleasure, and with death as the inevitable end of pleasure, that seems overwhelmingly familiar. Richard Conlon makes a fine Elyot, and Selina Boyack is an absolutely stunning Amanda, clever, elegant, alluring, infuriating and funny. And both are brilliantly supported by James Mackenzie as Amanda’s stuffy second spouse Victor, and Jennifer Hainey herself as Sibyl, Victor’s female counterpart, and – in the end – his increasingly passionate sparring-partner.

Romeo And Juliet at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow, until 20 July, and on tour to communities around Glasgow. Rope in repertoire at Pitlochry until 12 October. Private Lives at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, 7 July.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

Selina Boyack has been one of the most elegant and intelligent actresses on the Scottish stage for more than a decade; but ths week, she finds a whole new level of comic brillance, in a superb performance as the beautful, mercurial and enraging Amanda, in Oran Mor’s short lunchtime version of Noel Coward’s Private Lives. She’s funny, she’s clever, she’s “jagged with sophistication”; and she also looks breathtakingly glamorous, in one of the outstanding performances of the season.

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