by Robin Breon
South African theatre has a long, rich legacy for anyone interested in the drama of social and political protest. Thirty years of upheaval and civil unrest under the apartheid regime gave birth to arts organizations like The Market Theatre of Johannesburg - South Africa's first non-racial theatre. Co-founded by Barney Simon and Mannie Manim in 1974, the old heritage structure that houses the theatre was originally part of the South Asian community's open marketplace. The storied history of The Market Theatre and how they literally (and creatively) broke laws, or perhaps more precisely put, slid around, over and under the law in order to stage plays by Athol Fugard (whose works are now considered classics of the period), along with other masterful productions such as Woza Albert (by the writer/performers Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa), Assinamali, Kat and the Kings and numerous others that played to international acclaim and toured worldwide.
Today this rich endowment has spread to regional theatres throughout the country. A prominent example is the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Capetown which this year is celebrating its 30th anniversary. This beautiful facility, which boasts a mainstage theatre, a superb concert hall and a smaller studio theatre for more experimental work, continues a tradition of providing artistic fare that portrays the multiracial, multicultural social dynamic that is the true face of South Africa.
Having moved on from Johannesburg, Mannie Manim, is currently the artistic director and chief executive officer of the Baxter Theatre complex. At 66, he is tall with curly grey hair and exudes a smiling, avuncular affection that belies the pressures of running such a huge artistic complex. With lighting plots in hand (Manim is also a lighting designer), he directs us toward the cosy restaurant/pub that overlooks the majestic lobby of the Baxter Theatre.
"The theatre of South Africa is really at a turning point", he says. "Under apartheid we were a theatre of protest, a theatre of social justice and a theatre with a heavy responsibility. Today, in the post-apartheid period, we have to continue to prove ourselves relevant - that 's why we chose these two classics to open our 30th anniversary season."
Manim is referring to Dickens' A Christmas Carol/Ikrismas Kherol and Mozart's The Magic Flute/Impempe Yomlingo, directed by Mark Dornford-May, which opened to rave reviews in Capetown in October and this week opens at the Young Vic in London. The gender-bender Christmas Carol (the only one that I was able to see) has all of the major roles including Scrooge, played by women and is set in one of the many poor black townships that surround the urban areas of the country. The magnificent Pauline Malefane plays Scrooge as a township pelf who is impervious to the suffering of those around her including those afflicted with HIV/AIDS. Malefane was last seen a few years ago touring internationally with the Lyric Theatre's production of Carmen and as Mary in Yiimimangaliso The Myseteries. About her portrayal of Carmen, the London Observer enthused: "the Carmen by which others should be measured."
Malefane also performed the role in the award winning film, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha which won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 2005.
When asked what prompted the decision to feminize Scrooge, Manim answered: "Our association with Mark Donford-May (who also directed the Lyric Theatre productions) was so positive we wanted to work together again. We talked about some ideas and decided that unless we really begin to give women a chance by remounting the classics in new and relevant ways; they will just simply never have the opportunity to play the great classic roles which also includes Shakespeare and many other plays. The actors want these opportunities and it's our responsibility to give it to them."
The final preview performance I saw in Capetown of A Christmas Carol/Ikrismas Kherol, featured a cast of 30 talented actor/singer/dancers. The play opens in darkness with what appears to be flashlights peering out at the audience. As the lights come up the "flashlights" are revealed to be a loud, meshing chorus of miners, digging away deep in the bowels of the earth who gradually turn their labor into the liberatory African dance of the toyi-toyi. Later, when visited by the three spirits, Ms. Scrooge is transported in time back to the apartheid regime to re-encounter her youth by way of film segments that run concurrently with the action on the stage.
Interpolated throughout is the compelling popular music of the townships with original lyrics and music composed by Mbali Kgosodintsi and Mandisi Dyantyis.
And, as Manim stated, there is real contemporary relevance in this production that the young ensemble of actors knows very well. Leaving Capetown on the drive back to the airport, one is still confronted with the disturbing sight of dilapidated shantytowns with their rusted, corrugated, tin roofs and cardboard walls. How galvanizing an image it was in the court of world opinion during the anti-apartheid struggle when the people who live in these communities rose up to confront the bulldozers and the police truncheons in order to defend their most basic human right - the right to live with a roof over their heads; however humble, modest and tenuous the construction of that roof might be.
For these people, fourteen years after the fall of the apartheid regime, sanitation, proper housing, education and affordable health care are still the apparitions of Christmases yet to come.