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South African Theatre Spreading its Creative Wings Again - 2002-11-08

The end of apartheid in South Africa brought social and political euphoria to the country. But South African artists say it also brought a surprising creative slump. Now, that is changing. South African writers and actors are rediscovering their voices, and making them heard to British audiences.

In this modern-day stage performance of The Beggar's Opera at London's fashionable Wilton's Music Hall, African tribal drums mix with the high-pitched vocals of classical arias. The production's design and sound are a celebration of South African culture, and allude to the country's Dutch and British colonial past. The 35-member South African troupe, many of whom are newcomers to the theater, deliver soulful lines in a fluid mix of traditional national languages: English, Dutch-imported Afrikaans and tribal languages Sotho and Zulu. One beggar wears a shirt of a faded Union Jack flag under his tattered overcoat.

John Gay's classic opera about a gang of street criminals is a satire on the struggles of the social underclass of 18th century England. But this rendition draws obvious parallels to contemporary South Africa. In one dramatic scene, the street gang - dressed in period clothing and gangster rap-inspired baseball caps - is confronted by a wealthy gang leader in a fur coat who pulls a handgun on them.

Money, power and gun violence are just some of the themes being addressed in what is being touted as the new South African theater.

There is a long tradition of political theater in South Africa, dating back to apartheid, when the stage was the only real platform for free speech. But, recently, there has been a groundswell of new material, from social commentaries on domestic violence and sexual abuse, to reworkings of Shakespeare, set in modern-day South Africa.

Mark Dornford-May, the British-born artistic director of The Beggar's Opera, says the end of apartheid brought with it celebration and personal freedom, but also a creative slump, while people searched around for new things to write about. "Theater was political, because theater was used as a weapon," said Mark Dornford-May. "And, then, you didn't need theater as a weapon, and, in a way, everyone wasn't quite sure what theater was there for."

Eight years after the end of apartheid, Mr. Dornford-May says, people are finding their voices, and are realizing they have great stories to tell. "What you've got now is a theater, which is not looking to the past, which is looking toward the future and trying to find a voice for the future," he said. "And that's what's terribly, terribly exciting, because the lid's come off, and we've got this extraordinary talent, which is crying to be heard."

Everywhere in South Africa, there are new festivals, new production companies and even a spate of amateur productions by children in black townships. Many South African theater troupes have taken their performances on the road, playing to audiences as far away as Britain, and receiving critical acclaim.

A story of modern day race relations, called Happy Natives, won a Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Arts Festival in Scotland, and just finished a run in London's prestigious West End. It was written by Afrikaans playwright Greig Coetzee. And in Manchester, England, The Royal Exchange is now staging the British premiere of The Dead Wait, a searing drama, based on a white South African soldier's confession of a war crime committed during apartheid.

In a harrowing tale, the soldier recounts to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission how he was forced to carry a wounded African National Congress operative on his back for three days during the South African army's disastrous mission into Angola in the 1970s. He is then forced by his Afrikaans platoon commander to shoot the operative.

Dead Wait author Paul Herzberg, who plays the commander and is himself a former South African soldier, says he felt he had to do a story, which addresses injustices of the past, while satisfying a growing appetite for plays that tackle tough issues.

You know, we were frightened after 9 -11 that people just wanted to go for soufflé theater, but I think the opposite is happening. I think people want to see theater about something. That is not to say that it must be polemic or agitation theater, but about something.

"I wait and wait in hope for some kind of justice. I wait for my simple release. I wait for the return of the runner. I wait."

After a long wait, new South African theater is beginning to emerge. South African playwrights and actors - no longer socially or politically restrained - have found their creative voice and are using it.