A bleak vision of South Africa hits the stage

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The Independent Culture

Before he shot to prominence as the "little gangster" and inadvertent child-snatcher in the Oscar-winning Tsotsi, Presley Chweneyagae had written his own version of life in a South African township.

Where some were unconvinced by the white director Gavin Hood's sympathetic portrayal of the thug-turned-good ("The reality," pointed out one journalist on the Sowetan newspaper, "is that the thug never cries"), Chweneyagae's Township Stories pulls no punches, interweaving tales of everyday survival, love and sex with scenes of domestic violence, rape, alcohol abuse and murder.

The collection of scenes set in the bustling shacks and smoky shebeens grew out of acting workshops held in 2003 by Chweneyagae's drama teacher Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom. The co-writers have known each other for eight years, since Chweneyagae started attending the classes aged 14. "I'm somebody who doesn't subscribe to fame," says the teacher, somewhat coolly, of his now feted pupil. "It's been quite a joy to see him develop from play to play."

Last year, the play had its professional premiere in South Africa, with a 16-strong cast. Grootboom picked up a handful of national awards for the drama, which went under the title of Relativity for its South African run. Chweneyagae explains that the title suggests that morality "depends on where you're standing - 'You might think what I'm doing is wrong but I think it's right.'"

The play asks us to explore the slipperiness of morality through the central character of Thabo, a damaged, unpredictable 19-year-old. On this UK tour, Thabo is played by Chweneyagae's best friend Zenzo Ngqobe, who played Tsotsi's psychotic sidekick Butcher. While both characters struggle, with varying success, to control their murderous instincts - one of the film's most chilling scenes sees Butcher silently run through the jolly man they have just mugged on the subway with a sharpened bicycle spoke - Thabo presents the greater challenge for the actor.

"Butcher is a cold-blooded assassin. Thabo is different. He reads a lot, whereas Butcher never went to school. Thabo is still human," Ngqobe says. "When I prepared to play Butcher, it was easy because I grew up in a township and I used to know guys like him. I knew who I was playing. With this, I've had to read up because I don't know who I'm playing."

For inspiration, Ngqobe read Catcher in the Rye and Catch Me a Killer, the true story of a serial killer profiler with the South African police. Chweneyagae drew on similarly diverse sources for his script, ranging from Shakespeare to Hollywood and his own experiences.

"Every day, I look at other people. Say I see a beggar in the street; I ask myself, 'What caused him to be the way he is?' I grew up in a township. I know people who are nasty," Chweneyagae says laconically, "people who can do bad things."

He borrowed the idea of a mesh of seemingly disparate storylines that gradually become related from the film Magnolia, and drew on The Silence of the Lambs for the psychology of a highly intelligent serial killer and the atmosphere of menace.

Among reviews in the South African press was an assessment of the play as a "theatrical answer to film noir". Grootboom, who says he is a "film fanatic", certainly sees the stage through a director's eyes. The curtain rises on a bustling panorama - slum-dwellers go about their business separated by imaginary walls and the only sound is the chaotic hubbub of an average day.

As the lights go down on this opening "shot", we are plunged immediately into a flash-forward of a young girl being chased through the bush, then raped and murdered, by a shadowy figure. The play goes on to introduce the audience to various members of the community via a series of episodic snapshots.

Music is crucial to Grootboom's filmic vision. Each scene is underscored by its own "theme" from a soundtrack that sprawls from Rossini to Norah Jones via Paul Simon, Louis Armstrong, Sting, Tracy Chapman and Marvin Gaye. "I chose the songs not in an emotional way, but to ironic effect," Grootboom says. "In a fight scene where the criminal is beating up his girlfriend, we play a love song. At the end we play 'It's a Wonderful Life', and what you've just seen is not wonderful at all." The result is a jarring dissonance between sight and sound, reinforcing the play's structuring principle of relativity.

South African music makes an appearance in the figures of Mpharanyana and the kwaito musicians Mapaputsi and Zola. The latter also came to international attention in Tsotsi, starring as the snappily-dressed wheeler-dealer chief gangster Fela and providing much of the soul of the film with his music.

"If you look at the history of kwaito music, it's almost like rap or hip-hop. You see all these kids who didn't go to school relieving their anger with lyrics, rather than doing what they feel," Chweneyagae says. "Some are criminals who decided to turn their lives around. It's very inspiring."

In a recent interview with The Independent, Zola said this of his music: "Whoever goes and buys my CD has to understand that this artist comes from a place where he sees a drunken father beat a mum on the street, where a friend died, where a friend got raped, where a friend got successful and went to college, where a friend died of Aids... and all of these things make him what he is today. He cannot tell one story and leave the other." It's an assessment that could as easily apply to Chweneyagae's Township Stories.

Grootboom's uncompromising subject-matter and studied musical accompaniment to scenes of extreme violence have seen him dubbed the "township Tarantino", but his authentic vision has little of the Hollywood director's gloss. "A township is never a positive thing, because it comes out of apartheid. But there are some positives within the negative. Our story is about losers but they can have wonderful relationships with each other. In the township, there are people who spend all their time drinking, but at the same time they have this communal thing which, when I was living there, I really loved."

Tsotsi raised the profile of post-apartheid South Africa on the world arts stage. And U-Carmen eKhayelitsha - a version of Bizet's opera sung in Khosa and set in the country's third-largest township - was released this year to critical acclaim. "People are starting to take work more seriously, be more creative," Chweneyagae says. "There's a different landscape now - the slums, kwaito music."

Grootboom is rather less optimistic, although he is proud of an emerging "vibe of artistic integrity" in his country. "More plays are being done but they are existing plays, which I have a problem with. I think we should do more original work and be more experimental. We have to explore ways of telling stories that are different from the ways we are used to."

Although both films brought much-needed revenue to the national film industry, there were mutterings that they were interesting black stories told by and for white people. As Township Stories starts its British tour in Edinburgh tonight, how will British audiences react to the disturbing, visceral portrait of township life? Will the play serve to reinforce a stereotypical view of South Africa in disarray?

"We have to tell stories," Ngqobe says. "We can't keep stories because people are going to think this or that." Chweneyagae points out the universality of a tale charting the moral disintegration of a community. "It could be a slum in the UK or anywhere in the world. It's real life, but it doesn't define our country. It's just a story we created."

Chweneyagae's performance in Tsotsi, going from the cold-hearted, stony-faced mugger to a helpless, weeping child, drew international plaudits, and Tsotsi won the best foreign film Oscar. So do the bright lights of Los Angeles beckon for the 22-year-old South African actor? "It's very difficult to choose the next project..." He pauses. "But, you know, home is home."

'Township Stories', Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-228 1404), today to 2 September; then touring to 11 November (18 October to 11 November, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London; 08001 831 188)

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