Martha Mdenge's remaining leg was amputated just below the knee on Monday 6 October, at St James's Hospital in Leeds. The first had gone a full year previously courtesy of Baragwanath Hospital, Johannesburg.
These two most unwelcome events span the making - and the marring - of The Good Woman of Sharkville which opened last night at the Hackney Empire, London. Because I am so very fond of Martha and since I think it would amuse her, I have somewhat inevitably come to see the story of the production and this present revival as the first and second legs of the Sharkville saga.
Martha seems to me to encapsulate all the delights and aggravations that working in South Africa entails: the bravery, the obstacles and the mystery of people's lives as they try to bridge the professional with the personal in that difficult country.
I first met Martha during auditions at Johannesburg's Market Theatre in February 1996. It was "elderly lady morning", and half a dozen or so splendid women had been lined up to see me. Some were unavailable but had come along to be remembered for another time; some were somebody's best friend and thought they might do instead. Some had never acted in their lives but why not start now? Such a one was a wonderful lady who is a stalwart of the present show and proved herself to possess an acting talent as easy as a breeze on a hot day. A few were just plain hopeless.
Then in came Martha, quiet, reserved, very dignified, with a witty and worn demeanour and a rare smile. She had lived in London for 17 years, one of the many thousands of exiles who, like me, had escaped in the early Sixties via a show on tour and then simply stayed put. She had returned home after liberation and was not averse to treading the boards again.
I asked her to read for the landlady Mrs Mi Tsu (Mam Mtunzi in our version) and her command of English instantly caught my ear. I am constantly made aware of what a triumphant feat it is for black actors to be expected to perform in a language not their own; I find it very humbling. I have witnessed such luminaries as Simone Signoret and Max von Sydow come a cropper on the stage, struggling with the rhythms and idioms of English. Martha clearly had absorbed the idea of class during her English sojourn, and I could see the germ of the Bracknellesque character of magisterial proportions in the making. Class is not a pre-occupation in South Africa - race, yes; class, no - but Martha understood de haut en bas, the condescension of the self-made woman towards the weak-minded novice. Her extended vowels were to carry the disdain superbly and, above all, comically. Martha's performance used to bring the house down with its exaggerated vocal flourishes and its inherent mockery of "posh" white talk. It was all instinct. Directors dream of such a find.
But hang on, is this Brecht we're talking about? Shouldn't I be extolling the expertise of Martha's verfremdungseffekt? Oh, you know, the way she so brilliantly distances the character from the situation at that crucial moment in Act 1, Scene 9. Shouldn't we be discussing her perfect gestische Sprache as she waves the lease under the nose of the little prostitute? Well, no actually, because like most of the cast, Martha had not had much truck with a rebellious German visionary who transformed our ideas of the theatre's social and political functions and kicked the theatre of illusion smack in the face. So when rehearsals began on 20 May 1996, I didn't dwell for long on such things. After all, you can't act a theory and we had a mere four weeks to get a huge play up and running.
The notion of re-writing Bertolt Brecht's The Good Woman of Setzuan began one evening in the National Theatre as I sat watching Deborah Warner's 1987 production. I couldn't help wondering what it might be like if the audience were to be in the same sort of boat as the characters in the play - ie poor - and so be able to empathise rather more vividly than middle-class aficionados surveying the struggles of a desperate little soul at the bottom of the heap. So, some years later I sought permission from the Brecht Estate to rethink the play into an imaginary South African setting, where poverty is an everyday thing. I reminded them that Brecht himself had toyed with the idea of a black cast (he thought Jamaica would be the right setting and the book to be by WH Auden, no less, but it never materialised) and that no doubt he would have been pleased to see his play have another life in a new order. The estate seemed to think it a viable idea and gave the green light, for which my eternal gratitude.
I enlisted the help of a great story-teller and a great friend called Gcina Mhlope who also knew nothing of Brecht - I can't emphasise enough how refreshing it is to work without preconceptions - and we began by rethinking the names of the characters. This instantly provided new histories. The gentle little Chinese girl Shen-Te metamorphosed into a Zulu innocent called Sizakele, and her tough cousin from a snaky Shui-Ta to a gunshot Mafioso called Suduka. The barber Shu Fu became a benign Nigerian (Nigerians are demonised as rich villains) called Xolani; and Wang the Waterseller became Manzi-Manzi: all names have meanings in Africa and manzi means water in Zulu.
A quasi-formal style of speaking was retained to underline the fairy- tale feel of the play and so Sizakele's poems could retain their stylistic integrity. Should the Policeman be white? No, the idea of a black community seemed paramount. Should it be set in Soweto? No, too many political implications; an imaginary town full of sharks seemed the thing. Tobacco as a drug was not wicked enough, so basing it on the Santa Monica version was obvious: crack-cocaine replacing Brecht's opium. The gods should be the ancestors, an ancient reality that still holds hands with Christianised Africa. Being a pilot is still a small boy's dream so we didn't mess with the concept of rising above the squalor. No design references to corrugated iron and dingy rags: the years of protest theatre had done that to death. Anyway, you can only opt for colourless minimalism in theatrically opulent societies so Sharkville was to be vibrant with colour and villainy.
As it played in The Market Theatre, there were some gratifying nights. When our little heroine cries out to the hopelessly muddled gods: "Why is evil so well rewarded and why do the poor endure such suffering?" someone in the audience would yell: "Yeah, why?" My original impulse seemed to have borne fruit, the play had taken on a fresh lease of life. Yet what was most pleasing to me was how funny it could be in the hands of unself- pitying black actors whose ebullient mockery of the status quo had prepared them perfectly for Brecht's emblematic and unsentimental gallop through a moral minefield.
And what of Martha? A corn on her foot turned gangrenous due to diabetes the day before we opened and a couple of toes came off. She gamely hobbled back into the role, sporting a walking-stick, for the last few weeks of the run. Then I heard that that same leg had been amputated during the year that it took to arrange the UK tour.
Otherwise, I heard, she was well. "Fine," I said, "let's have Martha, wheelchair and all, she's too good to miss out on." She was happy, I was happy and during September we rehearsed seven new cast members with nary a sign of trouble and Mam Mtunzi was back to her old magic. But fate was playing its hand. Martha came off the plane at Heathrow in a semi- coma and the next day the doctors saved her life by cutting off the leg. The irony was that Martha had a British passport and was entitled to treatment under the NHS. Her years of exile had saved her. But I can't help regretting that England won't be seeing one of the best comic performances from the grandest of old ladies that I have been privileged to work with.
`The Good Woman of Sharkville' is at the Hackney Empire, London (0181- 985 2424) to Sat; the Nia Centre, Manchester (0161-227 9254) 11-15 Nov; and the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry (01203 553055) 18-22 NovReuse content