With BroadwayWorld's own list of the "Top South Africa Theatre Stories of 2012" having appeared recently, there is no better time to reflect on the productions that have appeared on South African stages over the past 12 months. The first of this series of four columns takes a look at the plays, while subsequent articles will focus on musical theatre and opera; comedy and cabaret; and dance and physical theatre. Today's column will feature a baker's dozen of the most compelling theatre productions that have appeared on stage around the country this year, with input from several of South Africa's actors, theatre owners and producers, each of whom has selected their own theatrical highlights of 2012.
New plays included those written for the Artscape's Eighth Spring Drama season, which yielded CHAMP by Louis Viljoen and a new piece from Nicholas Spagnoletti, SPECIAL THANKS TO GUESTS FROM AFAR. The former dealt with the antics of a group of struggling actors working in a shopping mall in an oversized bear suit, while the latter told the tale of two old friends meeting up at a wedding, with the appearance of the groom's brother prompting a no-holds-barred examination of their relationship. Tara Notcutt, the co-founder and Artistic Director of The Pink Couch, picked CHAMP, which was directed by Greg Karvellas as 'a show which rocked [her] party': 'Louis is one of my favourite SA writers, and CHAMP is my favourite of his plays yet.'
Smaller venues were also buzzing with new plays, including CREPUSCULE at the Arts Admin Collective and THE VIEW at the Intimate Theatre. CREPUSCULE was a dramatic interpretation of a real life love affair across the boundaries of race set against the backdrop of Sophiatown in the 1950s, brought to life on stage by Khayelihle Dom Gumede, the winner of the Theatre Arts Admin Collective's Emerging Theatre Director's Bursary. Director of Fourword Productions, Oskar Brown, identified CREPUSCULE as his theatre pick of the year: 'It was a really engaging and exciting piece of South African theatre, presented in a true South African way, stripping the stage as bare as possible and not hiding the actors behind complicated set, lights and props, with great acting and great directing.'
Rust Co-operative's THE VIEW featured prominently on social media, selling itself largely on word of mouth, proving that Facebook and Twitter are valuable and essential implements in the theatre marketing toolbox. Written and directed by Philip Rademeyer, the play translated into theatrical form recent comments by an American pastor who stated that gays and lesbians should be contained in isolated enclosures and then killed.
Controversial themes were also tackled in Gina Shmukler's THE LINE at the Market Theatre, which dealt with trauma related to the xenophobic attacks that took place in South Africa in 2008. Freelance actress, Candice van Litsenborgh, who is also the co-owner of Canned Rice Productions, selected THE LINE as one of the plays that stood out for her this past year: 'It's verbatim theatre lifted directly from interviews she conducted with various South Africans speaking about xenophobia and it reminded me a lot of Anna Deavere Smith's work in TWILIGHT, which dealt with the LA riots. The two young actresses emulated the characteristics and speech patterns of real people - male and female, young and old, black and white - as they shared their experiences and stories on one subject. It's coming to the Baxter next year and I hope to catch it again and see how it has grown.'
The National Arts Festival in Grahamstown was, as always, a fertile testing ground for new South African plays. One of several productions that impressed at the Fringe Festival this year was THE THREE LITTLE PIGS. Simon Cooper, co-owner of Kalk Bay Theatre and co-founder of KBT Productions, picked the play, which was directed by Tara Notcutt and performed by Albert Pretorius, James Cairns and Rob van Vuuren, as one of the best productions he saw in 2012, calling it 'a South African politico-drama that is without doubt the most insidiously sinister thing on stage for years, [that] takes the shenanigans of the ANC and their fellow travellers and lays them bare.' The play, which moulds contemporary South African politics into a play where ANIMAL FARM meets RESERVOIR DOGS, will tour extensively in 2013, starting with a season at the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town next month.