JOYCE MCMILLAN on SOUTH AFRICA AT THE FRINGE, 2012 for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 12.7.12
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