THEATRE / On the Road: Where theatre thrives on Market forces

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We are joined at an African restaurant by John Kani, who's rehearsing as Judge Brack in Hedda Gabler, and Barney Simon, director of the Market Theatre here in Johannesburg. The idea is to plunge into the South African mood. The music helps, and the ostrich is superb, but I resist the crocodile.

My wake-up call fails to materialise and the minibus, which I have to myself, is late. Get to the Market half an hour behind schedule, to find Ian McKellen in a state of nerves, and taking it out on his frocks. 'This hasn't been pressed - look at those creases.' The Market itself is set in a sea of fleamarketing, clowning and youth culture, the atmosphere redolent of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf or London's Covent Garden. The auditorium, a conversion of the marketplace, with fruit and veg signs intact, is a gem.

We rehearse until 2.30pm. The show, Ian McKellen in A Knight Out, a benefit performance for the (unsubsidised) theatre, goes splendidly and inspires a standing ovation - but it is disappointing to see only a handful of blacks in the audience. Richard Eyre, looking remarkably unlike McKellen, is congratulated on his performance by Nadine Gordimer.

Barely time to swallow before we're whisked off to the Vita Theatre Awards ceremony at the (heavily subsidised) Civic Centre, monument from a past age, the outfits peacocking around - all very LA. A fantastic group of black kids called African Pride dance in their wellies, a mixture of tap, break and aerobicised snaps. Pieter-Dirk Uys (dragging as Evita in shimmering sequins) asks how the country can be run by a man who means everything he says. 'Doesn't he understand hypocrisy? Hypocrisy is the vaseline of political intercourse.'

The Market Theatre wins a hefty bunch of prizes, as usual, and John Kani is honoured with an award, the first in his own country that he has personally accepted.

And there is a seriously good bash in the foyer afterwards, with black African musicians: symbolic of the new era.

Day 1 of the workshops - the team seems to be in a high state of tension, me included. The visitors more jumpy than the homeboys. The morning is spent with Tony Sher and Greg Doran and two separate groups of 12 actors. After a hesitant start we begin to find some form and have some fun. In the afternoon Richard Eyre makes an impassioned speech concerning the theatre at home (flavoured by the state of the nation). 'Cultural diplomacy is the only honest and disinterested diplomacy.' I suppose we're all here for the same end: we just want to make interesting theatre. Taken to a swanky gym, favoured by bourgeois whites. Didn't try to overdo it on the running machine - the altitude is pretty high. You burn up calories fast enough.

Tuesday - two more classes today. I think it is going well. You worry about what the actors here will expect - am I delivering? People seem to be enjoying it. More than anything they want change.

This afternoon McKellen, Sher, Doran, Selina Cadell, Patsy Rodenburg, Sue Laurie and I are driven by Bruce, stage manager, activist, gay, to Pilanesberg National Park, where I see my first zebra crossing, hippos gliding through a lake, waterbuck, wildebeest, warthogs, ostriches (beginning to regret Saturday night's meal). There is a plethora of birds, and birdsong. It shuts the thesps up for a bit as they sit awestruck and ponder the mountain range at sundown. We don't spot a lion, but we've come a long way from Drury Lane.

For a really contrasting experience we shunted off to the Palace of the Lost City, an empire masterminded by Sol Kerzner and the most brilliantly executed kitsch I've ever seen. Egypt meets Niagara at Universal City. Down the road at the more commonplace Sun City, gambling and fast food marry in Vegas-style claustrophobia. Home on the bus and everybody sings show tunes.

Wednesday - sit on a writers' panel this afternoon, chaired by Doran, with Winsome Pinnock, Denise Wong and Jack Bradley. Quite a good audience and the debate really starts firing. There's no access to public funds for nurturing the arts, writers are lost in the wilderness. There are so many languages that it is impossible to find the true vernacular. Being Welsh and and a queen, I empathise. How can we reinvent ourselves without building new closets?

The blacks and the whites want to write plays, direct and act, but there is no existing laboratory to house the artists, and the Market Theatre needs serious government recognition.

See Moving Into Dance performing contemporary work at the new Dance Factory; the dancers are great (and, like a good proportion of the audience, black), but some of the choreography is feeble. Nightcap with McKellen, Sue Higginson (Head of the Studio), Diane Borger (Workshop Co-ordinator) to mill over the plot so far. I'm not sure that I've found my African feet but it beats the hell out of autumn down the Bethnal Green Road.

PS. Looking forward to the gay parade on Saturday.

Sean Mathias is a director, one of a group from the Royal National Theatre Studio giving a programme of workshops, lectures and classes at the Market Theatre, Johannesburg.

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