African Theatre, Cape Town
THE AFRICAN THEATRE, Cape Town.
Also known officially as Di Afrikaansche Schouwburg in Dutch.
In fact, the theatre had a variety of names over the years. Thus it was often fondly referred to simply as "The Theatre", or as “the Cape Town Theatre” by the English, while the Dutch called it the “Zuid-Afrikaansche Schouwburg” - especially after 1829 - and the “Kaapsche Schouwburg”.)
It was the first proper stone built European style theatre to be built in South Africa and one of the the oldest existing such theatrical structures in the Southern Hemisphere. The theatre was constructed on the Boeren Plein ("Farmers Square") or Hottentot's Square (This is now called Riebeeck Square and the building still stands there) and between 1801-1839 it served as a theatre, and from 1840 onwards as a Dutch Reformed church (today known as the St. Stephen’s Church). The building is still pretty much as it was, except for the ornamentation. It originally had no pit, only a balcony and richly ornamented boxes. However this soon changed as a pit was added in 1804. The theatre had no foyer, and the stage (still there) was small, with two doors and dressingrooms behind (now the vestry). Below the theatre was a number of warehouses and shops, still there today and still in use. Designed and built by the extravagant Governor Sir George Yonge in 1800, it had been inspired by a succesful performance of Taste in the Barracks Theatre and in response to a request by a number of citizens, led by one Henry Murphy, to found an English/Dutch Private Theatre by subscription in Cape Town. It was planned to operate on a subscription-only basis, with Yonge himself being one of the 24 initial partners, and catered equally for English and Dutch. The Governor pushed through the project in the face of much criticism and opposition. However, when the theatre was on the eve of opening with a performance of a Shakespeare play by November 1800, a Commission of Inquiry into Sir George Yonge's affairs and his subsequent recall to England postponed it all. However, the theatre finally opened its doors early in September 1801 and in October 1801 presented its first production, Shakespeare’s Henry IV pt. 1 - a performance which ran for a week. According to a report by Lady Anne Barnard on 16 October, the event opened with an address to Apollo, written by Mrs Somers and spoken by Dr Somers, followed by the play - apparently a dull play, but with scenes "very well done". The theatre was run as a charitable venture and had a committee headed by the Governor, with Dr Somers, John Pringle and most probably the original petitioners (Henry Murphy and his signatories, including a large number of Dutch burghers). The treasurer was Joseph Bray. In line with the British policy at the time to win the support of the Dutch, the shares in the venture were apparently equally divided between the English and Dutch, and the plan was to alternate plays in English and Dutch. On occasion German plays were also done - a tradition of German performance still extant in Cape Town today. (See: Section 1: German Theatre in South Africa) For the next 30 years or so hosted most of the major productions in Cape Town, except for the Circusses and equestrian shows, and the occasional plays in the Barracks Theatre. After the opening of the Liefhebbery Tooneel (sic) in 1825, it was used primarily by English groups and gradually it fell into the hands of a single owner (John Thos. Buck). In the face of a growing anti-theatrical feeling among the citizens in the Cape it was eventually sold in March 1839 and then converted into a church for freed slaves, to the disgust of the citizenry, who stoned the building. Hence the current name: St Stephens. In 199* a performance of Chickin' **** (starring Jonathan *) was held in the church in order to raise funds for the restoration of the building and in 2002-2003 Die Burger, a Cape Town Afrikaans newspaper, set about raising the funds for a full resotration, with the help of the artistic community in the city. (See: Bosman, 1928; Fletcher, 1994:21-28; Du Toit, 1988) [TH, JH]
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