Blood and guts in Johannesburg

Woza Shakespeare! by Antony Sher and Gregory Doran, Methuen, pounds 16. 99

The Merchant of Venice was not one of Freud's favourite Shakespeares, nevertheless he would have surely been intrigued by the 1987 Stratford performance in which Gregory Doran's Solanio described Antony Sher's Shylock not as "the most impenetrable cur that ever kept with men," but "the most impenetrable cur that ever slept with men". Rarely can a fluffed line have proved so prophetic; for, as Doran wryly remarks, "we've been together ever since".

In 1994, Sher and Doran were part of a National Theatre group that visited South Africa to hold workshops and discussions in the emerging democracy. In spite of incidental irritants, such as their status as an "out couple" being disregarded in the single invitation to Sher to meet Prince Edward, the trip was a great success and particularly poignant for Sher, who left the country for England at the age of 19. They arranged with the Market Theatre, Johannesburg, whose legendary production of Woza Albert inspired the title of this memoir, to return the following year with a Shakespeare play.

Their choice of Titus Andronicus posed problems for the management, who would have preferred Macbeth. It posed problems for the audience and played to 25 per cent houses. And, at one remove, it poses problems for the reader; for, unlike Sher's previous theatrical journal, The Year of the King, which focused on the familiar figure of Richard III, Titus Andronicus is barely known. There have been only two major productions this century: Peter Brook's with Laurence Olivier and Deborah Warner's with Brian Cox. So the authors cannot rely on the reader's prior knowledge to sustain interest in the minutiae of interpretation.

They compensate by concentrating on the events surrounding the production. Doran as director chose Titus not simply because it offered a whopping part for Sher as star but for its relevance to the climate of violence in contemporary South Africa (a photographer on the original National Theatre visit witnessed a casual murder close to his hotel). As they come up against financial chicanery, administrative inefficiency and public hostility, the mood shifts from Shakespearian tragedy to the comedy of Evelyn Waugh and William Boyd.

The cast's enthusiasm can be excessive. The actress playing Lavinia (Titus's daughter) decides, after lengthy research, that her reaction to an off- stage rape would be an on-stage miscarriage in a scene in which she does not officially appear. It is enough to make even the most radical Shakespearian pine for the Beryl Reid "let's start with the right shoes" approach. The description of the technical rehearsals belongs as much to military history as theatrical record, with faulty lines of communication (essential props not found, the Lighting Designer fled), bush-warfare (sniping in the press), feigned attacks and tactical explosions (from the director) and the final push to victory.

The modern-dress production attracted great controversy in South Africa, above all on account of its accents. One sympathises with Sher's mother who wanted to show off her son, the English Shakespearian, only to find him playing an Afrikaner; one sympathises somewhat less with the letter- writer who "could not abide the excruciating experience of the ugly accents of Southern Africa abusing some of the most beautiful language ever written"; one sympathises not at all with the critic who, objecting to Sello Maake ka Ncube as an unusually complex Aaron, declared that he would prefer to see a white actor blacked up.

The narrative is shared between the two writers in alternate diary entries, a technique similar to the exchange of letters in Sher's novel, Cheap Lives. And yet this fails to create as effective a contrast as might have been hoped. Apart from their different perspectives in rehearsal, both their viewpoints and voices are remarkably similar. Even after those passages in which professional tension gives way to domestic violence - Doran describes the "conversation with the flying plates" in a way that would be anathema to Michael Denison and Dulcie Gray - peace is re-established at the expense of literary tension.

But then, although the book has two authors, it has one realsubject: Sher. He is the senior partner, the Renaissance man both on and off stage, whose drawings add a further dimension to the story. Doran's return to his home county, Yorkshire, is acknowledged when the production tours in England, but it is Sher's return to his home country that takes centre- stage. Indeed, the book is most effective as a documentary counterpart to the fictional explorations of South African identity in Sher's novels, spiced with a black humour worthy of Shakespeare's own, as when the mutilated Albie Sachs dryly remarks of the show: "It's not a play for amputees!"

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