Obituary: Barney Simon

Barney Simon, theatre director, writer, lyricist, copywriter: born 13 April 1932; assistant editor, New American Review 1969-70; co- founder, Artistic Director, Market Theatre 1976-95; died Johannesburg 30 June 1995.

Theatre in South Africa without Barney Simon is unimaginable.

With Athol Fugard - whose early plays he directed - back in the 1950s and 1960s, Simon broke the colonial mould of staging only those plays already applauded in the West End and on Broadway, discarded lack of confidence in our ability to judge theatre for ourselves, and opened the Brechtian road for South Africans to assert, as playwrights and actors, what Walter Benjamin called the "ability to relate their lives"; the tragedy and vitality, the defiant humour of poverty in the underworld of black townships that was, in fact, the real South Africa.

During those years, it was the alternative theatre that kept the head of culture above engulfing apartheid. Where books were banned, the stage got away with the wily genre of illusion. Barney Simon was one of the founders of the Market Theatre, and from its beginnings in 1976 in the converted buildings of what had been our Johannesburg Covent Garden he put into its survival and growth as alternative theatre his very life.

No one knows how many men and women who have become the makers of a unique black theatre and a unique non-racial theatre in South Africa, known over the world, come from his vision and patient energy as director/writer. His attitude was always not only to teach others what he knew, but - that was the brilliance of it - to draw from them what was deep in the streets and in themselves.

I remember, decades ago, Barney Simon came by and asked if I would like to come with him to meet two young men who were keen to devise a play. They were Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema, and they had the germ of an idea in two out-of-works chatting in a graveyard where the great African National Congress leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Chief Albert Luthuli was buried. He got them to explore the idea, probing into the content; he told them to go home to Soweto and talk about it to street traders, crones, youths hanging around the bus stations, gangsters, taxi drivers, anyone - and come back with their gleanings a week later.

From this material he nurtured their great talent as actors to shape with them Woza Albert ("Come Back, Arise Albert"), a marvellous work using music, mimicry, irony and stand-up comedy in a message of liberation. The play was the first of many successes for Mtwa and Ngema, a prototype of the new theatre, to be created by them and their contemporaries, that showed the world outside what the statute-book version of apartheid was really like in terms of black people's account of their own lives.

Simon was artistic director of the Market Theatre for virtually all his life, producing his own plays, international works, and adaptations of others' stories - Can Themba's The Suit is one of them, running in London now - and in the last decade devoting enormous energy to the Laboratory, part of the Market's theatre complex, where aspirant playwrights could develop and stage their plays under his superbly creative guidance.

What was Barney Simon like as a man? In contrast to his masterly professionalism in the theatre, he was often bamboozled by the mechanisms of daily life: a sort of endearing Woody Allen character, defeated by burst pipes, car break-downs, and, in human relations, open to exploitation in his kindness to anyone with a hard-luck story. He was a loving and loved friend; the theatre was his family. Wherever theatre flourishes in this free South Africa his work helped bring about, his spirit will be present: Woza Barney.

Nadine Gordimer

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

HR Business Partner (Maternity Cover 12 Months)

£30000 - £34000 Per Annum 25 days holiday, Private healthcare: Clearwater Peop...

Project Manager (Procurement & Human Resources)

Unpaid: Cancer Research UK: If you’re a professional in project management, lo...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: We require a teacher of Geogr...

Day In a Page

The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on