Thursday, May 24, 2007

Africa looming large

Lots of African events in the last few days. We've been talking to the Africa Centre, where we did Toufann, as a possible central London venue for Dilemma. Graeme Jennings, who is running it on a temporary basis as it recovers from deficits, is rebuilt etc, invites me to its Arts and Culture Advisory Panel meeting, and I end up as part of the panel. There are some fascinating other people on it: Tessa from Africa Beyond, Netsayi Chigwendere, Zina Sar-Wiwa, and Adrian Berry, who programmed some of our work into the Bull at Barnet years ago. Adrian has done a draft programme for how the venue might function once it's re-built: in the meantime, we're talking about performing in its decaying shell. I like this idea for this play - it's a piece which demands the roughness and immediacy of traditional African performance, and where the sense of a decaying history, of ghosts, will be very helpful indeed.

Last night Kate Stafford and I drove up to Birmingham to see the Drum, where Dilemma will perform in Birmingham, and to attend the launch of UK Arts' Africa Consortium. It's a great idea - and displays the huge interest which the UK has in African work now. I find myself wondering what's at the root of this: post-colonial guilt, or a real sense that a continent which lives more closely with nature and at a saner pace might be able to teach us something? John Kani, who is the Consortium's Patron, suggests the latter in his speech. "When you come to Africa, come with an empty suitcase.... we are teachers as well".

The launch coincides with the press night of his play Nothing but the Truth at the Rep. In the programme, Zakes Mda (who knows a thing or two about this) says that the play is a milestone in South African theatre, and that it shows that Kani really is a fine writer - overturning the myth that it was really Fugard who wrote The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead. I'm quite sure that John Kani and Winston Ntshona fed a hige amount into those plays - they were genuine devised collaborations, like lots of what we do - but that doesn't make them great playwrights on their own, and to my mind this play showed it. I couldn't see how the family tiff was supposed to connect to the politics. I found the Ibsenite naturalism, unearthing past secrets, creaky and obvious. And so Western - box set and all. Kani is a wonderful actor and a great ambassador for African theatre, but this play shows him receiving Western models wholesale and then sending them back, long out of fashion and looking a bit bedraggled. I suppose it may be part of a malaise that I've been told has gripped many South African theatre-makers in the years since apartheid ended: the sense that there is no focus any more. One thing which did feel very resonant in the play was the way Kani's own character felt washed up and abandoined in the new South Africa - still, in his early 60s, unable to rise to the post of Chief Librarian. As if the generation that did all the suffering and all the campaigning has just been left behind.

It makes it poignant to compare this with the revival of Sizwe Banzi at the Barbican, with Peter Brook's company. Two young African actors perform this with virtuoso brilliance - particularly Habib Dembele in the John Kani role. The opening monologue (which is well known as Kani's own work - based on his experiences at Ford and developed through the stand-up like experience of performing the play in the townships) feels very alive, very current and incredibly funny. Because it is so concrete - because the politics and the human experience are the same thing - this play continues to resonate right now.

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