Theatre will never, and never has, gotten audiences like film. But theatre goes to work on society in a different and more subversive way — Athol Fugard
On 16 March 2021, The Fugard Theatre, named after the renowned South African playwright Athol Fugard, announced that its doors would close permanently. The final curtain call was not unexpected; the entertainment sector in South Africa has been hard hit by the pandemic and The Fugard had been appealing for assistance for months prior to this announcement. So why was this contemporary house of entertainment forced to close?
For many in South Africa, theatre has been somewhat inaccessible. Not necessarily due to ticket pricing (film tickets at Ster-Kinekor range from R100 to R200, not too dissimilar to that of a ticket to a theatre production), but more so as a result of the ineptitude of the national authorities who are expected to bolster interest, advertise national talent and buttress support for this ancient art.
As Fugard suggests, theatre transcends the visual and audio impact that film has on society. Theatre places the audience in an intimate relationship with actors on stage, the live element evokes emotion that can sway endorphins from feelings of utter joy to those of tragic despair, it is real, raw and omnipresent.
When The Lion King hit the international stage, the production transcended language and cultural barriers. It was showcased across the globe and for months on end, it became impossible to secure tickets. Fugard hints at the subversive element of theatre, perhaps suggesting that the play or production one has just witnessed infects your psyche with a deeper sense of what the play was actually about.
During the perils of apartheid, plays used symbolism and metaphors to elude government censors from their real meaning, these productions were rooted in political notions of freedom and justice — in Pretoria’s maximum-security prison, political activists such as Denis Goldberg, Jeremy Cronin and Raymond Suttner developed the plays of Bertolt Brecht, mocking the system and its authorities. Luckily for those responsible for these productions, the authority’s dim-wittedness could not fathom open revolt taking place in a public arena.
In the late 1940s in Italy, a country reeling from post-war casualties as a result of fascism, two pioneers ventured to make sure that theatre became accessible to the masses. Giorgio Strehler and Paolo Grassi reinvented the stage by opening Piccolo Teatro (which translates as “small theatre”), a theatre that took the classics of Gorky and Brecht and presented these wonderful productions to the people. Strehler envisioned that theatre could transform the mindset of “ordinary” Italians by going to the root of the true meaning of these plays.
This venture of Strehler and Grassi sought to bring culturally relevant productions to the stage, and by not merely mimicking trends of the time, had a long-lasting effect on a new generation of Italians, praising the courageous acts of anti-fascist partisans and inspiring youngsters through theatre schools and programmes of culture – a practical example of Gramsci’s cultural hegemony.
Like Italy at the time, South Africa remains deeply affected by both historic and contemporary manifestations of social strife. The closing of The Fugard has been understandably overshadowed by a more imminent threat to our society – the quadruple crisis of unemployment, inequality, poverty and gender-based violence, now fermented by brash corruption and fraud from authorities, pilfering funds meant for the poor who then plead ignorance at the Zondo Commission of receiving dodgy funds from dodgy deals.
It is these contemporary nuances that playwrights often metaphorise in their productions: power, authority and a sense of being an untouchable elite in the face of public scrutiny. What is more, is the fact that R300-million meant to help workers in the entertainment industry has been categorised as “mismanaged” and seemingly disappeared, this is a revelation that scuppers any ounce of faith in ensuring that authorities comprehend the nature and importance of the entertainment industry in South Africa.
Today we face an onslaught of bigotry, racism, chauvinism and division. These are all ingredients that further deepen the quadruple crisis. Theatre is but one element of diminishing this rise in ignorance and hate — it is a platform too to showcase South Africa’s innate cultural prestige on the stage, it is one of the most powerful mediums of spreading unity and drastically reduces disunity by allowing the audience to comprehend just how far we have come from being censored by barbaric and racist ideologies.
Production houses such as The Fugard are also home to many workers and professionals from diverse backgrounds, plying their hard-trained vocation towards the final curtain call. The sweat and tears that bring a theatre production together are a result of this diversity working together in unison — so few industries in the South African economy exhibit such homogenous workforces.
Fully comprehending that many might feel we have bigger fish to fry (or jail), that our SOEs and government departments require overhauls, that the needs of students require support and solidarity, all true. However, solidarity for the entertainment industry in the form of ridding its upper echelons of elitism and incompetence is an ongoing and ever-present need that, if not addressed, will regress our cultural-political stability to nought. What will be left is the same ignorance and dim-wittedness we have seen control society in epochs past.
Giorgio Strehler was emphatic in his promotion of theatre; his mission remains: “The most important thing, believe me, is that theatre always exists, that it grows and that the public loves it. We artists, we are only the instrument of the poetry of theatre.” DM