I AM very glad I’m not a tourist planning a trip to South Africa this year and hoping to take in some local culture, because I certainly wouldn’t be spoilt for choice on the theatre front. If the line-ups available at the moment are anything to go by, this year’s stage menu ranges from the safe and predictable to the disconcertingly diabolical.
There are some notable exceptions, of course. But what is alarming is that this month is almost over and it seems most of our mainstream theatres haven’t finalised the bulk of their artistic programming for the year. Whether this is due to a conservative fiscal approach, unsecured funding and sponsorship or a lack of vision remains to be seen. That which is available hardly makes one gasp with glee and delight.
The Joburg Theatre’s calendar makes for slim pickings. Sifting through all the music and dance tribute shows, one unearths two potential gems: a South African production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s roller-skating musical, STARLIGHT EXPRESS, directed by Janice Honeyman, and a new gospel opera titled THE AFRICAN PASSION, with a libretto by Themi Venturas and featuring composers such as Phelelani Mnomiya.
What piques the interest about the dusting off of an old chestnut such as Starlight Express is that it is apparently the first "nonreplica" interpretation officially licensed by Lloyd Webber and his Really Useful Theatre Company since the show’s inception in 1984.
A hot topic will be City Power Johannesburg signing up as headline sponsor in a year when we’re bracing for steep electricity price hikes.
One salivating prospect is the South African production of the Tony Award-winning musical, JERSEY BOYS, about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. It opens at the Montecasino Teatro in April before moving to Artscape in June. After the disappointing turnout for the exceptional Dreamgirls a couple of years ago, Hazel Feldman will be hoping for a slam-dunk success with this local production, which is wrapping up a blooding-in season in Singapore.
Of course, Joburg is currently all abuzz and agog over MIES JULIE, Yael Farber’s searing adaptation of the August Strindberg classic, which has just opened at the Market Theatre, and the remake of the Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona play, THE ISLAND, starring Kani’s son, Atandwa, and his equally mesmerising stage collaborator, Nat Ramabulana. More about those two gems soon. But there is no inkling from the Market as to what else is on the cards for the rest of the year, which is a disgraceful state of affairs for arguably the city’s premier cultural attraction.
Perhaps Cape Town is the place to be in these early months, with the Maynardville open-air theatre currently hosting a repertory season of Shakespeare’s "lost play", CARDENIO, as well as A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, masterminded by Fred Abrahamse and Marcel Meyer, who always add a dusting of avant-garde zest to their Bard reimaginings.
Reliable audience-pullers such as MY NAAM IS ELLEN PAKKIES, NOTHING BUT THE TRUTH, A HANDFUL OF KEYS and DEFENDING THE CAVEMAN will be doing the rounds, as will local comedians Nik Rabinowitz, Alan Committie, Conrad Koch, Riaad Moosa, Kurt Schoonraad and Stuart Taylor, plus a return visit by UK laughter merchant Eddie Izzard.
But true theatre enthusiasts will be all a-twitter over new South African plays such as TWITCH, Robert Fridjhon’s comedy about a group of birding enthusiasts, directed by Steven Stead, that will premiere at Durban’s Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre before travelling to Johannesburg.
Also potentially worth a look is the homegrown incarnation of the West End and Broadway hit, THE LADYKILLERS, based on the darkly comic films. On the Afrikaans front, a dramatisation of the Racheltjie de Beer folk tale is coming up at the State Theatre, as is DIE SKEPPING ORATORIUM, billed as the first original Afrikaans oratorio and spearheaded by Deon Opperman and Janine Neethling.
If this year’s theatre outlook was a landscape painting, the bleak hues would predominate.
Hopefully, the canvas will liven up with more adventurous brushstrokes as the year progresses, especially once the festival line-ups are announced. But at the moment it’s mostly a dreary case of the record being stuck on repeat and the tape being jammed on rewind.