David Lan: In the age of apartheid, theatre resisted | Theatre

I grew up in South Africa during the bleak, violent, seemingly never-ending iron age of apartheid. In 1971, when I was studying acting at Cape Town University, the National Party government built a monolithic 1,500-seat theatre complex in a commanding position near the centre of the city. The Afrikaner Nationalists had an easy rule of thumb by which to distinguish between the value of white people and black people – we have culture and they don’t. The purpose of the monolith, with its elaborate stairways, fancy colonnades and picture windows, was to declare and celebrate this belief. White musicians, actors and dancers were to perform to exclusively white audiences.

Afrikaans theatre was bursting with contradictions. The finest Afrikaans playwright was William Shakespeare. From the 1950s to the 70s, Afrikaans-language productions of the European modernists – Pirandello, Maeterlinck, Strindberg and especially Chekhov – toured to church halls all over the country. Uncle Vanya was a quintessential Afrikaans cultural experience.

Then, as now once again in the UK, the making of theatre was in every sense political. Every aspect was resonant and meaningful – how it was staged, where, by whom, for whom and, if it was subsidised, with what intention and to whose advantage. In the case of these tours to ultra-conservative farming towns of high-water mark creations of the liberal imagination, the state endorsed them and paid for them.

Cape Town’s Artscape theatre centre (formerly the Nico Malan theatre centre, which opened in 1971).
Cape Town’s Artscape theatre centre (formerly the Nico Malan theatre centre, which opened in 1971). Photograph: Pete Titmuss/Alamy

Of the productions scheduled for the new theatre’s opening, a play by the South African Bartho Smit, was banned by the official censor before it even went into rehearsal. The highlight was to be Koning Lear. The theatre’s artistic director, from a distinguished Afrikaans family, had been excited by productions he’d recently seen in Europe. He invited the German Dieter Reible to direct.

Lear was played by Cobus Rossouw, the beloved leading Afrikaans actor of his generation. My memory was that Edgar was played by a black actor. However, checking the cast list, I find the part was played by a white actor – in fact one who had only recently graduated from my own drama school. He certainly intended to convey that Edgar was a black South African. This, together with the bold, expressionist style of the production, was the cause of an ensuing scandal. Did he actually play the part in blackface? It’s unlikely but not impossible. Was he dressed in some version of royal Zulu or Xhosa apparel? No doubt someone will write in and let me know.

When Lear divided his kingdom among his daughters, it was made clear that each was being allocated an apartheid-style “black homeland”, one in the eye for the government’s divide-and-rule politics. In the last scene, with Lear lying dead on the war-torn stage, “black” Edgar climbed with dignity to the top of a revolving staircase – or was it Table Mountain or a giant anthill? The oppressive state had been violently destroyed and he was at long last entering into his kingdom.

John Kani and Winston Ntshona in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead at London’s National Theatre in 2007.
John Kani and Winston Ntshona in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead at London’s National Theatre in 2007. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

That the premiere took place in the presence of the state president heightened the outrage.

We drama students had long agreed to boycott the segregated theatre (the university was, in theory, open to anyone; a handful of my fellow drama students were black) but when we heard what Reible was up to, we knew we had to be at the opening. In the culture palace, formal dress was obligatory. We arrived wearing suits and ties but without shirts. Thus we made our protest.

In 1972 (as I describe in my book, As If by Chance), I was in the audience when Sizwe Banzi Is Dead was first performed away from the “township” outside Port Elizabeth where it was created. John Kani and Winston Ntshona, two (black) actors of genius, devised the play with Athol Fugard, South Africa’s most skilled and adventurous (white) playwright.

Everyone is the tiny upstairs room was floored by the play’s intricacy, compassion and intensity and its insight into the day-to-day realities of black life under apartheid. It’s now acknowledged as one more high-water mark of the liberal imagination, but even then I wondered if it also contained another radical story in code.

In the play the only means by which the man called Sizwe Banzi can survive the Kafka-esque bureaucracy of oppression is to give up his identity and change his name. The title tells us from the get-go that Sizwe Banzi is dead. The play reveals that he isn’t. He’s hiding in plain sight.

The armed resistance movement established in 1961 by the African National Congress when the Congress was banned was called Umkhonto we Sizwe, the spear of the nation. Sizwe is the Zulu word for “nation”. As the play unfolds it seems to tell us that resistance to apartheid cannot be suppressed. It might have to go into hiding but it will re-emerge, it will survive, it will enter into its kingdom.

Or so I deduced. Was this obvious to Zulu speakers? Did the authors intend it?

When the play arrived in London in 1973, standing on the steps of the Royal Court, I asked John Kani if I’d cracked the code. He gave me a big John Kani smile. “Ask me another question,” he said.

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