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!"

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas