When the French theatre-maker Jean-Paul Delore met South African actors Nicholas Welch and Lindiwe Matshikiza, he knew they were going to find middle ground through shared curiosities. Their first encounter in Joburg was a surreal experience at Ster City, an abandoned multiplex cinema which was the source of the inspiration for their work. DIANE DE BEER spoke to the extraordinary duo about the work, which premieres locally at Grahamstown.

In their play Ster City, two clowns create a compelling narrative of the past and a powerful depiction of the present-day city and, indirectly, the SA nation. Yes, that’s exactly what they are attempting to do, tell the tale of this country in no more than 60 minutes, opening the show to audiences of all ages, crossing continents to share their story, and doing so in many different tongues.

That’s no small task. But then there’s not much about Lindiwe Matshikiza or Nicholas Welch that’s ordinary, or suggests they’re not up to a challenge.

From her first professional days on stage, Matshikiza has put herself out there – directing and acting – and when you ask Welch about his career, he lists linguist, actor, stand-up and rapper as some of the varied roles he has performed. Most of his gigs are done in townships, where he takes on a black persona and speaks the lingo.

“I think the linguist thing helps,” he says, speaking English with a slight French accent, which is probably the result of the play having been rehearsed and performed in Paris.

When they first got together to rehearse/workshop Ster City, that cinema multiplex was the space the director selected for them to rehearse. Some Joburg residents might remember the old movie complex not too far away from the Johannesburg Art Gallery, but it is more of an excavation than a functioning building today.

“It was all a bit strange because of the debris and the decay,” says Matshikiza, but that also helped to them explore the story Delore wanted to tell.

The work process was also a novel one, because they worked in bits, throwing things together and casting some out at a later stage until finally everything organically came together. They have done a few performances in France, but how the play was received there might not be replicated back home. It’s about the story they’re telling, and people here are personally invested, which means they might receive it differently.

When rehearsing in Paris, they were playing in banlieues (ghettos), travelling to work on the metro as if they lived there, all of which ultimately played into the piece. They were also deeply touched by the reaction of the children to the work.

“They ask the most interesting questions, and immediately reacted to something like the sound Qua Qua makes,’’ notes Welch.

And if for a second you think an hour is too short to capture the spirit of the country, never underestimate this kind of collaboration.

Delore cleverly combined his theatre approach with two actors who bring their past to the story they want to share. Ours is a history of movement, migrancy both forced or from choice, contentious and intense, nuanced as well as complex. All of that they wanted to pin down.

“It’s about being both respectful and irreverent,” says Matshikiza. It’s a story of South Africa by South Africans with the help of the French. “We even had our own Creole going there,” she adds.

They had to develop a team lingo when working in Paris because of all the different nationalities on board.

“It’s about finding out who we are, little bits and pieces, a list of things – and finding the thread.”

Having said all that, and having worked hard at developing a structure, the show is flexible and interactive with the audience. But that works best for the actors, they both agree. It’s freedom as well as permission to participate fully.

Especially these two individual actors, who both have a strong sense of who they are, what they’re going to say, and where and how.

“There’s a great sense of ownership,” says Welch, who remembers how shocked they were when Delore jumped from the Anglo-Boer War to apartheid. But once they got the drift, they were cool.

With a father who is a historian, Welch had a rich source to turn to, and both also drew on personal experience.

Welch’s character says at some point: “Like a fool I will try and describe the 19th century!”

But of course, they know they are scratching the surface… and yet with these two, it’s precisely which surfaces that is intriguing.

And while reviving Ster City for Grahamstown, Matshikiza is finally going through all her father’s belongings and discovering yet another part of her history (actor, director and writer John Matshikiza died four years ago).

Welch was presenting a show at POPArt, the off-the-grid theatre venue at Arts on Main. Called Evening Service, he says it’s simply an excuse to be bigoted.

But hark his words – these two entertaining souls never do anything that simple.

When they take to the stage, it might not always catch your fancy, but it will always be worth listening to. They’re part of a new landscape, and this is where they want their voices to be heard.

• Ster City plays in The Hangar on July 2, 3 and 4.