Things aren’t as black and white in South African theatre as they used to be. When Barney Simon opened the Market Theatre of Johannesburg in 1976 inside a renovated Edwardian building, the work created there became synonymous with the struggle against apartheid. When Woza Albert!, a play co-written by Simon, Percy Mtwa and Mbongeni Ngema which imagined a risen Christ’s arrival in South Africa, appeared at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1982, this oppositionist satire took the world by storm.
It may be fifteen years since apartheid was outlawed, but the long-term side-effects of the injustices are still being felt. The South African theatre scene, however, is a very different place. With old enemies now toppled, things have become more complex. Nowhere is this typified better than in The Market Theatre’s latest offering. Craig Higginson’s play, The Girl in the Yellow Dress, arrives at the company’s spiritual UK home of the Traverse in a unique international collaboration bettween the Market, Live Theatre Newcastle and Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.
“In the past,” says Higginson, “in a South African context it was quite clear what one was dealing with as a writer with apartheid. It was a fascist system, plain and simple. Now we’re attempting to follow a democracy, and that path is much more difficult to follow, so people are writing plays that are much more ambiguous. We had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which set up a dialectic of victim and perpetrator. That in itself can be very dangerous, and can set up a fascist system an d a whole new form of apartheid. South Africa is still a very racist society. “
Inspired by Ovid’s Echo and Narcissus, The Girl in the Yellow Dress is set in Paris, and tells the story of the relationship between a beautiful young English teacher and her French-Congolese pupil.
“In simple terms it’s about narcissism and a co-dependent relationship,” explains Higginson, who is the Market Theatre’s Literary Manager. “But there are hopefully more political resonances as well. It’s about the relationship between the first world and the third world, and the power of language, and how language can be used to subjugate people. In that way, The Girl in the yellow dress is a kind of state of the nation play.”
Just what that state of the nation means, however, is even harder to define. For director Malcolm Purkey, who’s been at the helm of the Market Theatre for the last five years, apartheid may be gone, but while the commercial theatre thrives elsewhere in Johannesburg, the Market has become even more popular. Rather than water its repertoire down into light entertainment, however, the Market continues to capture the spirit of ever changing times.”
“What was so wonderful about the Market Theatre in the 1980s and the theatre that emerged from it,’ he says, “was that it wasn’t just about protest. It took South African stories and theatre forms, and brought them to life. The one question that posed itself post 94 was whether that still had a role. Under my directorship, there emerged in South Africa different forms of corruption, power struggles, sexuality, male dynamics and many other things besides. One major difference in the theatre that emerged post apartheid is that before, there was one very large subject, and that was very clear. Now theatre is much more playful. It has a different function, and there’s a different sense of what it’s about because we live in a different South Africa now.”
While Woza Albert! Will remain a crucial turning point of South African theatre, neither Purkey or Higginson are naïve enough to believe that it’s enough to rest on their artistic laurels. The spectre of apartheid continues to affect everything, and the Market Theatre is a vital cultural signifier of the long march forward in a country still riven with social and political division.
“We’ve had fifteen years of democracy,” Purkey says, “but that came after three hundred years of apartheid, and it will be another hundred before we even know who we are. So, is it over? No. It’s only just begun, and we’ve already got quite a lot of other lovely new plays as well as The Girl in the Yellow Dress that reflect this. Of course, we’re not just about the past. We don’t deny our past, because it’s very important, and is still affecting us, but we’re also about today.”
The Girl In The Yellow Dress, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, August 5th-29th; Live Theatre, Newcastle, September 7th-18th; Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, September 21st-October 9th.
The Herald, August 4th 2010