Boesman en Lena.
Boesman en Lena.

It’s always an interesting and sometimes exciting exercise to look back on a year of theatre and to see where and how the industry has grown, performed out of the box, captured the classics, introduced new rising stars, reintroduced actors that have stepped back on stage or simply struggled through the tough year that 2012 has been. That didn’t mean that as always, theatre didn’t manage ever so often to capture the imagination, tell stories that charged or broke your heart and celebrated different captivating performances. DIANE DE BEER speaks her mind on just a few of her best moments…

The State Theatre has been in real turmoil this year especially from a marketing and publicity point of view. It’s as if they could get shows together, but somewhere along the way someone forgot to tell the rest of us what was happening.

Because I’m a huge fan of Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom’s work, I wasn’t going to miss Rhetorical, his latest work, which was done in collaboration with long-time mentor Aubrey Sekhabi. It was extraordinary stuff dealing with real issues of the time but also giving it an unexpected universal appeal. If someone like Thabo Mbeki could speak to the masses like a Julius Malema, yet using his same words, what would the outcome be? Isn’t it all about the rhetoric?

Think of someone like JF Kennedy or Barack Obama: yes they might have substance but none of that will help if you don’t have the charisma and a way of getting your point across.

Good looks won’t go amiss either. Again dazzling with casting, Presley Chweneyagae as the Malema dude and Atandwa Kani gloriously capturing Mbeki, they play with all its intricacies mirrored the here and now. It sadly didn’t get the audiences and neither did it travel, which is a shame. It makes you think, it entertains and it addresses real issues we’re grappling with every day.

That’s everything theatre can give you with the added bonus that it comes from a young generation with their voices setting the pace.

Also at the State Theatre, Sekhabi has spotted the extraordinary talents of Cape artist Nicola Hanekom and brought her site specific trilogy which won all the accolades at the two main Afrikaans festivals – Betesda, Lot and Babbel – to Pretoria performing at their Kilnerton premises as well as in Centurion because they needed a telephone tower.

He also stages her stunning solo performance Hol at this week’s Mzansi Festival together with the poignant Sunday Morning and Itsoseng. It’s strong stuff, but if you want to get a participating drama audience keeping those halls buzzing, you will need a more regular programme and then while you’re about it, get the publicity team to understand they have to tell people about it.

In Joburg, it was a strong year for local classics. From Somewhere on the Border with an exciting young cast to 2013’s Young Artist Award Winner for Theatre, Prince Lumla’s Woza Albert starring Mncedisi Shabangu and Hamilton Dlamini, looking at it from a different place for a younger audience who might not be that familiar with the history or the context. One of theatre’s brightest stars James Ngcobo’s revisited Boesman and Lena with Quanita Adams and Elton Landrew also bringing a different take to a classic.

“It’s my time,” said Adams when I first spoke to her. “I was made for this role.” Audiences agreed.

He also celebrated with a revival of The Suitcase, which marked the emergence of the extraordinary Soweto Theatre, a first for this sprawling township.

Other classic plays were also turned on their heads by a generation who want to use those memories and replace them with their own. A young new voice is that of Christiaan Olwagen, a Marthinus Basson protégé who with a towering young cast of Stellenbosch and Pretoria graduates did a shocking cabaret trilogy titled Woza Andries?!, Ubu and die Secrecy Bill and Vagina Dentata. The cool thing about this group of young artists is that they speak their mind forcefully, and they do it either in Afrikaans or English.

Particularly impressive is the new South African voice emerging. It’s young, it speaks its mind and it is gloriously South African.

This is happening all over the place and while some are overtly political, others like Jemma Kahn with her sublime Epicene Butcher and other stories for Consenting Adults, pushes the envelope in a different yet no less extraordinary fashion. She approaches theatre from almost a pop-art fashion directed at an audience that is influenced by Japanese pop culture. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t go far beyond those narrow confines to spread its magic across the board. Add to that the exuberance of a young Wessel Pretorius who popped up all over the show at this year’s Aardklop mostly in Olwagen’s work, but then crowned it all with Ont, which seemed autobiographical.

It is all these young voices tumbling over one another in an attempt to catch attention that seems to be most persistent and more deliberate than a while back. Perhaps it’s the training kicking in, an understanding that you have to do it for yourself.

Another voice that blasts into the stratosphere is Crush Hopper’s Mandisa Haarhoff, who is currently studying for a doctorate in the US in film, but she’ll be back and she will come armed with new ideas and different ways to tell stories.

There’s also the Pink Couch threesome led by director Tara Notcutt, the young directorial dynamo and her two actors, Albert Pretorius and Gideon Lombard as well as director Jenine Collocutt, who with playwright (and husband) Nick Warren produces innovative work such as Sunday Morning, starring a supreme James Cuningham, also at the State Theatre for the current festival.

One of the most exciting art programmes is that of the National Festival’s Young Artist Award Winners. Each year when speaking to some of the recipients, I’m stunned by the quality of their work and blown away by their passion for the arts. And they do come through as 2011’s drama recipient Neil Coppen proved with Abnormal Load, which was brilliantly conceived as it played with old concepts in totally fresh way.

As does former winner Sylvaine Strike time and again blowing everyone away, this time with a fantastic interpretation of The Miser. She knows how to pick ’em – from the cast to those especially striking Strike moments that keep you smiling or wiping away a tear long after you leave the theatre.

Moving from the young to the more experienced, to list just a few, Nataniel keeps on raising the bar with his annual Emperor’s extravaganza, a brilliant Sandra Prinsloo juggles plays as if hopping from one couturier to the next. Brett Bailey stops us in our tracks with an Exhibit A that forces us to recognise exactly what one human being is capable of doing to another and Steven Cohen soars and plummets into his life and ours and whether you fly with it or are affronted by it, this is what theatre is about. It makes you think, laugh, cry and explore stories that will ultimately enrich your life and the way you act and react to others. It’s a glorious thing and when you look back at 2012, even in a remarkably tough year, they managed to do all of that – and more.