Classical Theatre

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Classical Theatre

Classical Theatre in South Africa

Judging purely by the number of productions of Classical (i.e. Greek and Roman) plays in the repertoire of South African theatre companies over the years, the Classics do not appear to have played a very important role in South African cultural life. But this is deceptive, for the classics have been a part of the training of students, performers and academics in South Africa for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and it has thus had an enormous influence on perceptions of art, literature andd theatre. In fact, it is rather suprising to find how regularly Greek and Latin plays in English, Afrikaans translations have actually been seen on the stage, and how many of the plays have been translated into, published and been studied in the various South African languages. Greek tragedies are by far the most popular of course, especially the Oresteia by Aeschylos, Medea and Trojan Women by Euripides and Antigone by Sophocles (or in the Anouilh version of his play). * The records are not complete, but the earliest recorded production of a Classical tragedy in South Africa seems to be that of the Medea by the company of Le Roy and Duret in Cape Town in 1866. The next seems to be Medea staged by the Afrikaans-Hollandse Toneelvereniging ("Afrikaans~Dutch Dramatic Society") in Potchefstroom and Pretoria in 1907/1908, and the Trojan Women by Muriel Alexander in 1919 and 1922 in Pretoria and Johannesburg. From 1930 onwards there is greater activity, though the professional Afrikaans travelling companies could not afford to present Classical plays and few of the amateur societies ventured to do this. The exception was Volksteater ("People's Theatre") which produced the Oedipus Rex (Sophocles = tr: Koning Oedipus) in 1938 and the Trojan Women (tr Vroue van Troje) in 1945, both in Afrikaans translations. * In fact, university dramatic societies and departments of Speech and/or Drama were the real mainstay of classical performance throughout the century, since they had more opportunity to produce Classical plays because they did not need to make a profit and had students and audiences on hand. The Little Theatre in Cape Town is a good example in this regard. It started with the Hippolytus (Euripides) in 1931, and in subsequent years produced Medea, The Trojan Women and the Oresteia (Aeschylus). In Stellenbosch the Afrikaans translations of J.P.J. van Rensburg were used in productions of the Antigone, Electra (Sophocles), Iphigenia in Aulis (Euripides) and Trojan Women. There were also productions of the the Trojan Women at the Universities of Natal and the Witwatersrand, and a production of Oedipus Rex (Sophocies) at the University of Potchefstroom as far back as 1927, an a number of productions at the University of Pretoria, culminating in unique bilingual Afrikaans/Classical Greek productions of ** and ** in the Aula in 197*, directed by and starring the redoubtable Greek National Theatre actress ***, playing alongside Anna-Neethling Pohl (then professor of drama at the university). * The state funded National Theatre Organisation (NTO) only presented one Greek play, Oedipus Rex in Afrikaans, with André Huguenet in the lead role, but when the four regional councils were formed in 1962 they gave more attention to the Classics. PACT produced Oedipus Rex (in adapted form), Antigone and Electra and CAPAB Antigone and a controversial interpretation of the Oresteia directed by Dieter Reible. The avant-garde theatres also showed some interest in Greek plays; the Market Theatre produced Antigone and the Trojan Women and an adaptation of the Bacchae (Euripides); the Baxter Theatre produced the Medea. * Of the Greek comedies of Aristophanes's the Lysistrata has frequently been produced, e.g. by the Little Theatre in 1958 and the Market Theatre in 1974. The Frogs was produced in an Afrikaans version in 1977 and again by the Little Theatre, which also produced The Birds in 1980. * Roman drama is mainly represented by the tragedies of Seneca which became very popular in the seventies. His Oedipus for example was frequently produced, e.g. by PACT in 1971, the Baxter Theatre in 1980 and PACOFS in 1990. Roman comedy was staged less often, though ** has been produced and Marthinus Basson did a fine Afrikaans version of the Rudens ("The Rope") for CAPAB in 1992. * Over the ages many classical plays were adapted, relocated and/or modernized by contemporary writers. Thus ***, Shakepeare's adaptation of the **, has often played in the country over the years. Phèdre by Jean Racine (1639-1699), a reworking of Phaedra has also been occasionally been staged, often by students, for instance at the Little Theatre in 1950 and in Johannesburg in 1996 and Medea by Franz Grillparzer (1791-1872) was produced by The Space in 1977. * More radically and perhaps more popularly, a number of twentieth century playwrights have also based works on Greek plays and myths, seeking to reinterpret the plays and myths in terms of their contemprary experiences. Thus The Flies by Jean Sartre (based on the Electra myth) and a number of neoclassical works by Jean Anouilh ( ), especially his versions Antigone and Electra, have long been popular and influential, both as productions and as sources of South African plays (vide The Island and **). Antigone for example was performed by NTO (195*?) the Soweto Ensemble of Cornelius Mabaso (1966), the Phoenix Players (19??), by PACT (197*), etc. - as well as a number of student companies. * In the late 1970's and 80's the work of British writer Steven Berkoff (1937-) - including his comic version of Oedipus, called Greek - was procured for production by Mavis Taylor and the University of Cape Town Drama Department and performed at the Baxter Theatre in 198*, to be repeated regularly after that. It has become staple food for students from the University of Cape Town and therefore for theatres like the Market and the Baxter. Similarly, CAPAB's Marthinus Basson and translator Arnold Blumer of Stellenbosch University obtained the rights to the works of by East German dramatist Heiner Müller (19**-) and they did his **** in Afrikaans by CAPAB in 199*. * In a like fashion a number of South African authors have also translated and adapted Greek and Roman plays. Examples are: Lysistrata S.A. produced by The Space in 1977, which set the play locally in the political furore of the times, as did Antigone '71 by ***??, Bacchus in die Boland by Bartho Smit (197*) and Ritual 2378 by Ian Ferguson (both based on The Bacchae), The Island by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, (utilizing a rehearsal of Antigone as central dramatic frame) and Demea by Guy Butler. Other interesting examples are Paradox by Chris Vorster, an immensely popular disco-version of The Frogs and ** by William Kentridge and the Handspring Puppet Company. (PC & TH) (See further: Astbury, 1979; Bosman, 1980; Binge, 1969; Burrow and Williams-Short, 1988; PACT Decade. 1972; Inskip, 1972; Stead, 1985; Stopforth, 1955; Schwartz, 1988.) ***

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