A dramatic rebirth: Theatre in Cape Town

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Cape Town's District Six, scene of some of apartheid's worst excesses, is home to the new Fugard Theatre. Paul Taylor was there for an emotional opening night

A sense that something historic was in the offing wafted through the air like strong perfume as I sauntered down Government Avenue in Cape Town in the golden late-afternoon sunshine.

There was a woman resplendent in a frock that cascaded to the floor in a haemorrhage of golden pleats. I had to step aside to make room for the sheer Elizabethan bulk of her outfit. Flocks of other well-dressed rich folk were, like her, heading towards the Parliament building, outside which an orchestra, a steel band and a choir were practising, the noise rendered eerie by distance.

The beautiful city felt both en fête and faintly frightening. The street was barricaded, with a heavy police presence. Groups of soldiers in fatigues and alarmingly well-polished boots were moving towards the same destination. This was Thursday 11 February. It was both the anniversary of the day that Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the evening on which the hotly (and anxiously) anticipated state of the nation address would be delivered by President Zuma.

The next evening, I was lucky enough to attend an equally historic ceremony, along with half of the politicians in the cabinet (and their body guards) and a mix of artistic dignitaries from abroad (Alan Rickman, Sean Mathias) and home-grown (Janet Suzman, Pat Williams). This was the opening in District Six of a new venue, called the Fugard Theatre. It is the first permanent home of Isango Portobello, the company headed by the English director Mark Dornford-May and by his wife, the phenomenal singer-actress Pauline Malefane, who grew up in the township of Khayelitsha. Isango Portobello have already taken London and Europe by storm with their joyous cultural makeovers of the medieval The Mysteries (Yiimimangaliso) and of Mozart's The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo), an opera that has been rescored – by the brilliant young musician/ conductor Mandisi Dyantyis – so as to conjure up a South African soundscape. A battery of marimbas are bashed and tickled into creating a noise that is like euphoria and patiently earned wisdom entwined. When I first saw The Mysteries in London in 2001, I wrote that the production resembles something that the world's greatest director, Peter Brook, would have been proud to produce in his prime. Of Impempe Yomlingo, Sir Simon Rattle has remarked that "Mozart would have been first surprised then delighted!"

The opening of any new theatre is good news; the opening of this one, though, has claims to be momentous. District Six was the area of Cape Town that was anathema to the apartheid regime because it represented a rational, rollicking rebuke to its vicious prejudices. Blacks, whites, and coloureds managed to live here together in bohemian, artistic harmony. So in between 1965 and 1967, it was declared a "Whites Only" area, there were forcible removals and the regime eventually bulldozed it to the ground. Since the dismantling of apartheid, the area is still an under-populated scar-like gash, but there is now a District Six Museum where you can stand on a scale street map scribbled over with the signatures of the survivors. Therefore, to fashion a theatre from old buildings (leased from the Museum) on this particular piece of land is to light a defiant beacon of hope for this troubled nascent democracy.

The great spirit after whom the theatre is named was present at the opening-night festivities, which consisted of a performance of Impempe Yomlingo where the company surpassed itself in the impishness of its wit, the delightful fervour of its mysticism (with its initiation ceremonies, The Magic Flute is an apt choice for a theatrical inauguration) and its soaring vocal fervour (the sound seems to resonate through your entire body so that you feel like a tuning fork that's been benignly struck). Though eight-and-a-half months pregnant, Malefane brought her extraordinary stage presence and matchless voice to the demanding role of the Queen of the Night. The Queen famously has a personality re-think between her two appearances in the opera. The joke in circulation on that evening was that Pauline was quite up to giving birth during the interval and returning for the second half, thus giving the change of motivation a Stanislavskian twist.

Peter Brook has rightly said that nowhere in the post-Second World War era (not even in Eastern Europe) were theatre's special powers and potentialities challenged more exactingly than in the South Africa of the apartheid regime. In a conversation a few weeks ago, he also said that if one essence of the medium is an inspired, hand-to mouth capacity for collaboration, then no one has ever deserved more praise than Athol Fugard and his black co-conspirators, colleagues, and fellow performers.

This white son of mixed British/ Afrikaans stock embraced the raw experience of his black friends and shaped it, using a dramaturgical skill born of studying European classics into a synthesis with dramaturgical skill. But they were not allowed to travel together, or to occupy the same hotel room, and the black artists (who included Zakes Mokae, John Kani and Winston Ntshona) sometimes had to be classified as Fugard's gardeners. (This sort of gross inequity did not afflict the partnership of, say, Beaumont and Fletcher.) The only space, paradoxically, that they could share with relative impunity was a makeshift theatrical stage, and that often under private-club conditions.

Ntshona was present at the opening night at the Fugard, as was Pat Williams who, back at the start of Fugard's career, was the one young newspaper critic brave enough to hail him as a ground-breaking new voice. She went on to be the lyricist of King Kong, the forward-looking smash-hit South African jazz-musical of the 1950s. It toured the world with its story of a black boxer who is allowed to beat all his non-white fellow-fighters but denied, because of his colour, the chance of entering the ring with the white champions of the world. It's time some enterprising producer thought of reviving the piece. At Isango Portobello, the production that they are actively in the process of developing, though, is a stage version, with lots of historically pointed music, of Robert Tressell's novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. The debate about the role of manual workers, who must be made to see how they subsidise with their underpaid labour the world of the capitalist fat cats, is to be transposed to the South African townships and adapted by the English dramatist Stephen Lowe, who was a benign presence throughout the festivities. It's an inspired choice, not least because Tressell lived for a time in South Africa and the experience helped to sharpen his world-view. The gap between the rich and poor is continuing to widen in this new democracy; there has been the disaster of governmental denial of the chronic Aids crisis; there are the wounds that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has failed to salve. Complemented by jazz and the music of Salvation Army (often the only route by which musical black person could get hold of a musical instrument in South Africa), Tressell's book should be prove an enlightening sounding board.

The compere of the opening-night speeches was Eric Abraham, the man who has financially underwritten the whole project. Now a film and theatre producer (whose past hits include the Oscar-winning Kolya), he was as a young liberal reporter in Cape Town who was betrayed to the security forces by his own naval commander father. This led to his being banned, house arrested, and escaping to 15 years of exile. His story indicates that there may be emotions from the past that can never be resolved ethically in the new South Africa but which can, instead, be channelled into positive impulses.

This kind of difficult balance was audible in the pithy, wonderfully structured speech that Fugard eventually gave, after mastering a clearly massive weight of tearful emotion. It was a gracious, modest speech that said that in these computerised days you can always click on images and change them. Accordingly, he confessed the desire to click on the neon sign announcing the Fugard Theatre. The name would change to Mark Dornford-May, then to Eric Abraham, then to – and here again Fugard had to restrain his feelings – the people of District Six who did not survive the apartheid purges. It was an indescribably moving moment.

His new play, written for the company, is called The Train Driver and was inspired by a tragic newspaper article about a train that ran over a black woman who had decided to commit suicide, with her three children, by deliberately standing on the line. In Fugard's speculative piece, the white train driver visits the grave and has a not un-Hamlet-like encounter with the grave digger. The play is still under wraps but at the opening party, Suzman told me that, in its stocktaking, it is Fugard's equivalent of the South African Nobel Laureate J M Coetzee's Booker Prize-winning novel, Disgrace.

The future pushing forwards through a due cognisance of the past is also inscribed in the very fabric of a building that reminds one, in its lovely refurbishment, a little of the Royal Court and the Young Vic. The buildings are a state-of the-art conversion of a conversion. The sublime rehearsal room, with its high Gothic windows letting in natural light, was once a church hall that had been insensitively turned into a packing warehouse in the complex of the former Sacks Futeran textiles distribution firm. There are the fossil lines of illogical false floors and ceilings still visible. The theatre itself combines a marvellous open Elizabethan-style thrust stage with the sense of an intimate Georgian playhouse, the feel not unlike that of the Tricycle in Kilburn. With its central rack of costumes and wraparound mirror, the single un-hierarchical dressing is instinct with the sense of a democratic 40-strong company who, promoted to professional status by Isango Portobello, are often supporting extended families back in the townships where they still live.

The company's political patron, the former Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel, spoke fervently at the opening ceremony of the need for the company to travel the length and breadth of South Africa. Just as Brook travelled round Africa with just a carpet, you can see how they would need only a ramp and good transport. It's to be hoped that they find the funding for this extension of themselves within their native land. For certainly, when they sing – even of bitter sadness – every note sounds like a message of hope.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee