Protest theatre re-invented

2012-11-09 13:38

Two Cape Town theatre producers are proving that mainstream audiences are keen to see politics on stage. Charl Blignaut spoke to Mike van Graan and Tara Notcutt

A curious scene greeted me at a fringe satire called The Three Little Pigs at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown earlier this year.

At the door, between the theatre luvvies and their overlarge handbags, two hipsters were pleading with the ticket lady to be let in.

Then a rogue comedy fan pushed past, went down on his knees and begged to be ahead of them on the waiting list. The Three Little Pigs was a hit.

Its success had a bit to do with 25-year-old director Tara Notcutt being a hot new name and a lot to do with the star power of the cast and co-writers, particularly comedian Rob van Vuuren.

The curious thing though was that young South Africans were clamouring to see a piece of unbridled political satire.

Firing accents and animals like an AK47, the minimalist allegory is about death squads, strip club gangsters and a corrupt police chief.

It spins its critical take on Lolly Jackson, Jackie Selebi, Richard Mdluli and Bheki Cele into a tangled web of horror.

“Surreal” is how an engaging Notcutt described her week.

The Three Little Pigs was snapped up by international festivals.

“The rest of the world also has a police corruption problem,” one of the buyers told me over breakfast.

It’s a departure for the young Pink Couch theatre group, one Notcutt says will define their future work.

What The Three Little Pigs proves is that political theatre – if it’s presented in a relevant way – isn’t a turn-off for local audiences.

It’s something that playwright, activist and cultural worker Mike van Graan has been saying for years.

Green Man Flashing is his best-known work. It’s a thriller about a mixed-race couple and a corpse.

A woman must choose whether to pursue her rapist – an influential Cabinet minister – or remain silent for the sake of the stability of the elections.

Gender, guilt, power and history tip the scales throughout, offering no easy solutions but delivering a fierce critique of morally corrupt politicians.

Written in 2004, Green Man Flashing was revived this year. The issues are more relevant now than they were a decade ago.

Someone said “issues”. Grab your children and run! That’s a common response from commercial producers to consciously political scripts.

After the years of protest theatre, issue fatigue set in – and then recession. Most theatres today are looking for entertainment and well-dressed bums on seats, and only the festival circuit offers an alternative.

“But actually, people are needing this kind of theatre,” says Van Graan. “It’s a catharsis. A theatre of confronting our anxieties.”

That’s a bit what The Three Little Pigs feels like.

It neatly modernises Van Graan’s dark comedy, Just Business (2005), in which a Cape Town strip club owner must buy back his life from a hit man in a capitalist thug economy.

It, as well as Van Graan’s poignant religious thriller, Brothers in Blood (2009), enjoyed a successful run in Grahamstown this year – which would seem to support his belief in a new kind of mainstream political theatre.

But it’s a point he had to prove before he got buy-in.

“Why is it, given our history of political theatre in this country,” he asks, “have there been so few mainstream plays about the HIV/Aids pandemic that’s claiming a thousand lives a day? Why is it that you have less than 10 professional plays, probably, since 1994?”

For some time Van Graan, working in cultural policy and citizenship initiatives, had been researching questions like that.

He says audience surveys indicate it’s not true that we don’t want issues on stage.

The theme of a play is less important than how it’s presented, who stars in it and who recommends it.

His HIV/Aids work, Iago’s Last Dance, was rejected by producers because, they said, no one wanted to see an Aids play. He took out loans and funded the production, and it sold out at festivals.

“I’m very conscious that theatre’s audience is an elite middle class. I try to negate that by making the work accessible to more people, working with trade unions,” he says.

At 52, he still has a youthful earnestness and a readiness to chuckle.

He worries about freedom of expression in the face of prescriptive government funders, says theatre can “change consciousness” and considers a deadline to be his muse.

Van Graan doesn’t write from personal experience and declares it “very uninteresting” compared with generating socially engaged ideas.

Yet his history is uniquely, bizarrely South African.

Born on the Cape Flats to a factory worker father and school teacher mother, he was classified coloured.

“Actually, when the Nats came to power, my father was one of six siblings who had to go classify themselves.

“Based on their skin tone, three of the siblings classified themselves as white and three as coloured. They weren’t allowed to live in the same house!”

Active in student politics, he got into theatre in a way that, today, could read like a comedy.

“I could study at the University of Cape Town, but only if I did a subject not offered by my university. That was drama.

“I had to get a permit from the coloured affairs department to go to class. Then, in the year I started, they introduced a new regulation: you had to do the subject as a major.”

South African theatre was stuck with Van Graan and today his work is being studied in schools and his fictional world is peopled by goodies and baddies of every hue.

Yet, “I’m not black enough” is a fairly common line in his plays. I ask him about that.

“I resent it,” he says. “I’m a product of the 70s. I’ve never seen myself or my consciousness as coloured. I’ve always seen myself as black. Ironically, post-1994, I’ve never felt more coloured.”

A more common line, however, is one like this: “Ah, so you think this is like the TRC? You can just say sorry and leave?”

Van Graan believes that theatre can force us to face our past and our complexities.

It’s something Notcutt, a virtual born-free, raised in a liberal community arts family, is also thinking.

“I’ve never been particularly political,” she says.

“But I’m getting older and seeing the kind of world that was promised I’d be living in is not really happening.”

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