Lines of least resistance

Under apartheid, South African theatre thrived. Under Mandela, Shakespeare plays to empty houses. Can drama flourish without a crisis? By Clare Bayley
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Arriving in Johannesburg a year after the election of Mandela, I hoped to find a thriving theatre culturecelebrating the new democracy in South Africa. The end of the cultural boycott means International Rugby but also visits from the RSC and the National Studio, under the initiative of Antony Sher. But theatre is by nature an oppositional medium and, though it thrives when it acts as a subversive voice, it sometimes languishes when it becomes legitimised, as we've seen in Romania, Russia and even Central America.

I went straight to the Market Theatre, which by a bizarre loophole of apartheid had managed to keep the flame of both cultural and inter-racial activity alive since the 1970s. In the entrance, my South African journalist guide bumped into one of the Market's directors. "Why haven't you got productions in all your houses, at this of all times?" she chided him. "You never went dark throughout the years of apartheid." The unfortunate director squirmed. "Listen, we just can't get the good plays, man," he said. "And Tony Sher's playing to empty houses, so how are we going to fill a theatre for an unknown playwright?"

The abysmal local response to Sher's Market Theatre / National Studio co-production of Titus Andronicus which cast Sher as a Boer Titus, provoked Sher to hit back at his compatriots through the local press. "The demise of serious theatre here is very painful to witness. Love us or hate us, how can the people of Johannesburg not be interested in our experiment with Shakespeare?" asked the wounded star. His outburst created plenty of column inches in response, but still no audiences.

The Market's marketing department put the blame on a craven white suburban audience, who are too afraid to come out after dark because of crime. But, as one affluent suburban dweller admitted, it wasn't so much fear that was keeping him at home as the daunting prospect of Shakespeare's least light-hearted play, coupled with the Market's hard-line reputation. "We're just sick of being made to feel guilty," he confessed.

Political sophisticates, meanwhile, resented the self-styled exile returning to lecture them on how bad the situation used to be, when they themselves stayed behind and worked for change. "Where was he while the struggle was going on?" muttered one such in the bar during the interval. "Writing his autobiography?"

Though they would rarely admit it, the lot of politicised whites is not a happy one. Their own politics, reinforced by Mandela's policy of affirmative action, means they have all-but argued themselves out of jobs, and nobody's going to feel sorry for them. On the other side of town, at the glitzy Civic Theatre, former bastion of white elitist culture, Janice Honeyman is acutely aware of the situation. A founder-member of the Market Theatre herself, she is still firmly committed to the Market's guiding principle of opposing apartheid by encouraging artists (and audiences) of different races to work together. But she is also aware that even in Mandela's optimistic "rainbow state", the future for whites at the top of big national institutions is limited. "It's something we always knew was coming," she says.

Her solution to transforming the white culture palace on the hill into a people's arts centre is a policy of rotating interests. The Civic welcomed the RSC on its first-ever visit with a touring production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The hosting of the Allied Domecq-sponsored RSC tour should have been a great coup for the Civic; in fact it encountered the same fate as Sher, playing to empty houses.

When pressed, an embarrassed Honeyman admitted that she had hoped for a Shakespeare instead of Les Liaisons. "Perhaps people would have been more curious to see the great RSC doing Shakespeare," she said diplomatically. She didn't add, as one waspish audience member was overheard to say, "Why would we want to see a third-rate production of a 10- year-old show we've all seen at the movies anyway?" It's insulting to the intelligentsia, who want to see the latest new plays from Europe, like Oleanna (a recent sell-out when it transferred from the Civic to a new suburban theatre in Rosebank). And the effect of the cultural boycott has been to make the majority of audiences more, not less, conservative in their tastes.

The success of Honeyman's regime can be seen playing itself out in the Civic's grand foyers and cocktail bars, where the fabulously wealthy whites of the ancien regime still parade in their sequin-encrusted evening- wear. But now they literally rub shoulders at the bar with the affluent blacks of South Africa's new ruling elite: Oliver Tambo's actress daughter, Solani, with her cut-glass, Oxford-educated English accent and her glamorous airs, is a regular visitor.

They packed in to see the comic satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys's most recent show, You ANC Nothing Yet, in which his repertoire of Pretoria ladies has grown to include a take-off of Mandela himself.

But it is out in the townships that the real action is happening, and all the theatres are hungry to get their hands on it. When the Civic's development manager, Tale Motsepe, hears what they are saying at the Market about new work, he laughs. Every afternoon he receives groups of all levels of competence and enthusiasm, many of whom devise their own work in garages and church halls with minimal facilities. There is an abundance of work, and no shortage of audiences in its natural milieu. After three weeks of this intensive viewing, Motsepe will pick four productions which will perform for a week each, and the most successful will be given a full run in the studio theatre. "To me, there isn't a crisis of theatre, there's a crisis of audiences," he says. "We have to preach the culture of theatre-going across the communities. What about all those rugby supporters? If it comes to it, I'm prepared to speak to the general of the police and invite him to come and see our theatre."

It may take some time for the theatre programmers in South Africa to juggle the demands of luring back recalcitrant audiences without boring theatre sophisticates, and bringing the grassroots theatre into the mainstream without losing its authenticity. This last is a risk the Civic Theatre seems to be running with its current staging of Welcome Msomi's popular hit Umabatha, the "Zulu Macbeth", a huge-scale extravaganza of traditional singing and dancing. The most difficult obstacle, though, is that theatre is no longer seen as an essential expression of civil liberties."Theatre can be such a pleasure and such a mind-mover," Honeyman says. "And there's plenty of minds that still need moving here in South Africa."

n 'Titus Andronicus' comes to Leeds (11-15 July) and the National (18- 22 July). 'You ANC Nothing Yet' is at the Tricycle on 7, 9, 10 June. The Market Theatre brings 'The Suit' (13 June-8 July) to the Tricycle, and 'Jozi Jozi' (12-24 June) to Theatre Royal, Stratford East, for Lift