A dramatic rebirth: Theatre in Cape Town

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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.

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