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Macbeth at the Maynardville Open-Air Theatre
Cape Town Races
By Robert Brustein

Recent Theater in South Africa






On my most recent pilgrimage to South Africa, it appeared obvious that the country's ugly problems remained in disturbing contrast to its lovely landscape and gracious population. HIV/Aids (afflicting more than six million people at present) is by any measure the largest and most contentious issue confronting South Africa today. Instead of being brought under control by the new drug advances, the disease is being accelerated by transmission from mother to infant. The ANC government has been famously sluggish in making use of medicines currently available to reduce infant mortality or to arrest the illness in adults. As a result, the country's chief political satirist, Pieter-Dirk Uys (a.k.a. Evita Bezuidenhout, the Afrikaner dowager) has made scornful mockery of President Thabo Mbeki's Aids policies, claiming that they have killed more blacks than the prior Apartheid regime. Nor has Uys's involvement with this issue been confined to the safety of the stage. Paying regular visits to the townships, he has been lecturing African school kids on the importance of wearing condoms, a more appealing item to them when colored black, he suggests in his splendid new show, Foreign Aids. ("Man, this is so pretty, I'd wear it on the outside.")

Following close upon the obscenity of Aids is the unholy trinity of poverty, crime, and unemployment. The shacks that began to proliferate near the Cape Town airport some years ago now stretch as far as Somerset West, thirty miles to the east along the N2 highway, virtually comprising a city of their own. And black-on-white assaults, rapes, and burglaries have replaced the white-on-black oppression of the Apartheid years, though crime at least in the Western Cape appears to have dropped considerably this year (the ANC government still refuses to publish actual crime statistics).

Yet, the South African economy is getting stronger. Real estate prices are going through the roof. Tourism is growing exponentially. Restaurants and public arenas are now entirely integrated. Interracial marriages and adoptions are common. And although black-equity ownership remains at only 3% after ten years of political liberation, white businesses increasingly include some form of black partnership or black managerial representation. South Africa today is a relative model of racial harmony, not surprising after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings demonstrated that unheard-of thing, a governing process founded on Christian principles of forgiveness and atonement.

Still, the disparity between the richest and the poorest black people is even wider today than that between blacks and whites in the past. The issue of racial inequality has clearly not been truly addressed. Visual proof of this income gap is embedded in the architecture. The living accommodations of South Africa's predominant races remind one of the way the Three Little Pigs built their homes to resist the huffing and puffing of the Big Bad Wolf. The black underclass lives in corrugated shanties (straw), the lower middle-class coloreds--created by intermarriage between European settlers and the native Bantu or Hottentot population--in neat stucco cottages (wood), and the privileged whites in Cape Dutch mansions and seaside villas (brick). The greatest fear at the moment is that Thabo Mbeki will be replaced by some Big Bad Wolf (resembling Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe) who, in the act of seizing white property, will blow the brick houses down.

Today, South African theatre is largely preoccupied with questions of racial identity, just as under Apartheid it was concerned with questions of racial oppression. But unlike our own theatre, where such subjects are usually steeped in resentment, victimization, or liberal guilt, on issues of color differences the South African stage is remarkably honest and goodnatured.

Take Say Cheese With Marc Lottering, currently playing at the Baxter Theatre on the grounds of the University of Cape Town. Lottering is a colored (or mixed race) satirist in his mid-thirties, performing monologues in the tradition of a late-night comedian. Speaking mostly in English, but partly in his native Afrikaans, he enjoys his own wit as much as does his largely colored middle-class audience who treat him almost like a family member. Jigging on stage from one end to the other in a large black Afro with a spot of grey, he has the grace and nimbleness of a younger Michael Jackson. Like Jackson, he has had his problems with the law. A few days before I saw his show, Lottering was arrested for drunken driving in an accident involving three cars.

Instead of expressing defensive outrage or fake remorse about this charge, Lottering goodnaturedly incorporated it into his monologue. Making a barefoot entrance holding the steering wheel of a car, he jumped into the audience with a broad smile on his face, shook a number of hands, and, after remarking "Don't know how your January kicked off--mine began with a big bang," added "I'm going to need a lift home." Everybody was prepared to give him one. He's an enormously popular and likeable figure, even though the primary subject of his satire is the upwardly mobile pretensions of his own people in their eagerness to imitate the whites.

Lottering's medium in this piece is a Kodak carousel which he uses to project "say cheese" moments of his youth in Cape Flats. There are fading kodachrome slides of his family who always like to be photographed holding onto tree branches or leaning on somebody else's car. There are shots of his Khoikhoi (Bushmen) ancestors: "Absolute rubbish, we're German." And there are numerous photographs of a colored wedding, with its pregnant bride and its obligatory table of white people ("they get their food first"), where the alcoholics always manage to find each other, and where the flower girl ("this little bitch from hell") is determined to screw up the whole affair. Lottering concludes with pictures of a funeral, featuring the customary howlers and screamers ("Why? Why? Why? Take me! Take me"), before sending us on our way with the warning, "Whatever you do--do not drink and drive!"

The Maynardville Open-Air Theatre, now staging Macbeth, reminded me a lot of the New York Shakespeare Festival. For one thing, it started performing outdoor Shakespeare in the fifties, the same decade that Joe Papp founded Shakespeare in Central Park. For another, its company is completely multiracial. But whereas the New York Shakespeare Festival actors usually managed to blend into a unified ensemble, this South African company appeared to be as tribal as the country itself, including a few members to whom English is not a native language.

Macbeth was played by Kurt Wurstman, an apparently British-trained actor with a sandpaper voice who not only chewed the scenery, but swallowed, digested, and excreted it. Lady Macbeth was in the hands of a thin neurasthenic Anglo named Claire Watling who unwittingly demonstrated that the character was less in need of a crown than a shrink. As for King Duncan, he was enacted by a dignified Xhosa native (Joko Scott) with an accent thicker than that of Nelson Mandela (his son Malcolm was a handsome colored lad named David Johnson). Macbeth's servant Seton (Duminsane-Sizwe Mbebe) appeared to be a Zulu. And the numerous thanes, attendants, and murderers, representing virtually all the racial groups in the country, used such a great variety of dialects that it was hard to believe these characters inhabited the same hemisphere, much less the same play.

This approach had its charms but it created a sense of considerable geographical displacement, further enhanced by the fact that all the Scottish thanes wore native-American Mohawk haircuts. As for the weird sisters, those "black and midnight hags," they were embodied by a chanting tribal trio of men, joined by four athletic witch boys. With the witches stirring their cauldron, and the witch boys hanging from the rafters like bats, writhing to the rhythms of Tony Madikane's jungle tomtoms, the only element that seemed to be missing was T. S. Eliot's "nice little, white little, missionary stew".

The actors playing Banquo (Mark Eiderkin) and Macduff (Milton Schorr) had some tender moments of paternal love and grief. But Macduff's two boys were such hyperactive brats that one almost cheered when they were dispatched by Macbeth's assassins. Lady Macduff was pregnant at the time of her murder, and so for some reason was Lady Macbeth when she appeared for her nightly sleepwalk. Perhaps the director (Geoffrey Hyland) was trying to make some comment on third-trimester abortion. The portly actress playing Lady Macduff also doubled as a Messenger and as the drunken Porter, playing the one with uncontrollable giggles, and the other with such determined scatalogy (wiggling her behind, bouncing her boobs, squatting on stage to urinate) that one didn't mind when her Lady Macduff was taken off either, pregnant or not. There were some lovely lighting effects, especially on the baobab trees, and the balmy breezes wafting through the park made it a sensual pleasure to be there. But this Macbeth was more a culturally unifying experience than an aesthetically satisfying one.

The major acting problem was Wurstling's compulsion to croak and glower throughout the evening, apparently in an effort to indicate the baleful nature of his character. But Macbeth doesn't begin as a murderous villain. He is a natural man who becomes habituated to unnatural acts, an essentially decent apple into which evil eats like a worm. If the actor seemed unable to understand this process, I imagined, it was because his essentially benevolent nation doesn't provide many models of malevolent leaders (I don't count the inevitable financial corruption). That's why it was interesting to compare South African theatre today with that of a time when the country lived under a really brutal regime.

I'm referring to a particular play of the Apartheid period, namely Paul Slabolepszy's Saturday Night at the Palace, written in 1982 and recently revived at the Baxter. The title suggests a musical, but the piece is actually a hard-hitting drama, in the tradition of Athol Fugard's Master Harold and the Boys, about the humiliation of a black man by a representative of the ruling white race.

Fats Dibeco, Paul Slabolepszy and Bill Flynn in Saturday Night at the Palace, Baxter Theatre, 1983The play also shows the influence of American realism, especially in the character of Vince (Neil Sandilands), a brutal redneck in leather jacket and tee shirt who, in the way he instantly segues from calm to rage, reminds one of all those inarticulate movie heroes of the fifties, Ben Gazzara, James Dean, Marlon Brando in The Wild One (his milder friend Hendrik, played by Grant Swanby, rides the obligatory motorbike). The action takes place in front of Rocco's Burger Palace, a fast food joint off the highway, supervised by a Zulu "bossboy" named September (Sizwe Msutu).

The volatile Vince, who dreams of being a football star, has recently lost his job and been kicked out of his digs. These and other frustrations, especially a sense of being on the bottom of the social ladder in a country based on white supremacy ("My old man told me not to let a kaffir get the better of you.... They're taking over our jobs"), eventually compels him to goad and insult September in a manner that robs him of his dignity.

First, he expropriates the keys of the shop, demanding to be served a meal before he returns them. Then after September goes after him with his tribal staff, he handcuffs the black man to Hendrik's motor bike, smashes his windows and steals his cashbox. Other humiliations follow, including tearing up September's family photos and smearing food over his face. All this while Hendrik has been trying to moderate Vince's behavior towards the black man. But after the two friends start fighting over a girl and Hendrik knifes Vince, he is instantly ready to blame the killing on the hapless September.

While it shows its age a bit, the play retains a lot of punch and even some prophetic power. And it is strongly directed by Bobby Heaney, and exceedingly well-acted by the three protagonists, especially Sandilands in the pivotal role of Vince. That plays such as Saturday Night at the Palace could have been produced in 1982, with a mixed cast, suggests not that the Apartheid regime was more tolerant than has been assumed, but that it didn't count the theatre as very important. Unlike the popular sports arena, from which blacks were strictly excluded, an occasional African on stage was not considered much of a threat to white supremacy. Yet, it was plays of this kind that helped to change the regime and bring about the impressively integrated theatre that South Africa enjoys today.


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