Johannesburg – Take a stroll through Parkhurst on a Saturday night and you’ll weave between hundreds of people out for a pizza and a pint or three.
Walk a little further, and you might find a character spouting Shakespeare or actor David Butler dressed in prison uniform. You’ve found the Play Station, a small, unassuming theatre bringing drama, music and occasional comedy to the drinking classes.
While some mainstream theatres are struggling and brilliant shows play to minuscular audiences, a few brave entrepreneurs are running live venues more for their love of culture than for any commercial payback.
Joburg’s theatre scene has suffered badly over the past few decades as the audience aged and technology changed people’s idea of entertainment, says Clive Rodel, manager of the Foxwood Theatre.
“Entertainment has taken on a different form, so a traditional theatre approach is difficult to maintain. It doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for it, but that market tends to look mainly for big blockbuster kind of shows. So it’s a battle all the time – but it’s a battle we are kind of drawn to because we love what we do.”
Here are some of my favourite cultural gems in Joburg:
Classical concerts at Glenshiel
Saul Bamberger started hosting classical music concerts after he bought a gorgeous Steinway grand piano for his antique shop in Melville. “I took it to my shop and it was so beautiful I decided to share it and start having concerts by inviting musicians,” he says. “I did some classical music and jazz and it just grew.”
When he sold the shop he relocated the concerts to Glenshiel, a beautiful old building in Westcliff.
Glenshiel was designed by Sir Herbert Baker for Sir William and Lady Dalrymple in 1908. It was declared a national monument in 1979, and it’s a delightful place to hear live music. Elegant timbered rooms lead to a patio where you sip Sunday afternoon wine and admire the glorious gardens and expansive views beyond.
“The audience I get isn’t a typical classical music audience,” Bamberger says. “I used to accost people in my shop and tell them about it and they’d give it a try, so a lot of the people who came had never been to a classical concert and they very much came back. I have had incredible musicians from all over the world and they love playing here because they like the lack of snottiness. I don’t like to call them soirees because that sounds so stuffy.”
The jazz afternoons draw larger crowds than the classical concerts, and Bamberger says he is even open to staging pop music if it has enough artistic merit.
19 Woolston Road, Westcliff.
For details contact: [email protected] polka.co.za. Call 083 414 0041.
The Play Station Theatre
Bamberger is also behind the more experimental Play Station Theatre in Parkhurst. It’s a far more basic venue, where you sit on plastic chairs with a drink from a hole-in-the-wall bar and a meal from a mobile kitchen truck.
“I’d always wanted to do theatre too, so I opened the Play Station,” he says. “But drama is difficult. People’s lives are hectic so they are more ready for a good laugh than they are for drama, so I have been doing a mix of music, theatre and comedy.”
His database of 1 800 people includes many still loyal from the days of music and drama among the antiques. “It’s hard to appeal to a young audience when it comes to theatre so when I had the shop I’d give people something from Lear every now and again then throw something else at them. I think people got to trust me and go on a journey with me.”
The venues are interchangeable, with The Play Station used for concerts when performers like the orchestra from Amsterdam can’t fit into Glenshiel. The audiences cross over too. “They are very different venues but I like the two worlds and the fact that anybody can come to either, so you can be swanky and come to the Play Station or not so swanky and still go to Glenshiel.”
The Play Station is in the MOTH Hall, Corner of 2nd Avenue and 16th Street, Parkhurst. www.facebook.com/playstationtheatre
Foxwood House is another stately old home that lends itself perfectly to live theatre. It’s now a boutique hotel owned by Jan Groenewald and Pieter de Vos that has attracted guests like Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry.
To make a great night of it, book for supper before the show, with the food as delightful as the surroundings. It’s quite magical, dining on the patio under massive oak trees, then popping into its theatre for a spot of culture.
The variety of shows appeals to different tastes to put more bums on seats. Although the place is so classy I should call them derrières. Events swing from music to drama and stand-up comedy, while cinema evenings revive the good old classics. Rodel is excited about the first two shows this year. One is Shakespeare in the Garden performed by homeless people coached by actress Dorothy Ann Gould. The actors have gained dignity, work and a direction through the group known as Jam (Johannesburg Awakening Minds), Rodel says.
The next event will be a Spud-type solo show of memoires by Neil Jardine, the former head of Michaelhouse School.
Foxwood House, 13, 5th Street, Houghton. Call 011 486 0935. www.foxwood.co.za
Maboneng Precinct in downtown Joburg is so well known it’s almost mainstream, but PopArt is still worth a visit.
The tiny theatre often features new shows too offbeat or untested to make it to a larger venue, although established names like Fiona Ramsey and Malcolm Gooding have performed there.
Comic entrepreneurs Donovan and Jason Goliath host stand-up comedy on Sundays. Open stage nights once a quarter allow anyone to chase their five minutes of fame. Budding thespians can prepare five minutes of entertainment and take the floor. It’s hit-and-miss for audiences but if they’re on stage and you’re in your seat, at least applaud their bravery.
You can take drinks in from the tiny bar that doubles as the box office.
PopArt, 286 Fox Street, Call 083 245 1040. www.popartcentre.co.za
The Brazen Head
Not many pubs have a library and even fewer offer live music between the bookshelves. The Brazen Head in Sandton does, and it’s popular enough to make booking advisable. A big plus is that you can dine while you watch the show. “We’re a platform for a lot of new bands who are looking for a venue to play at, so we do it about four times a week,” says general manager Pieter Fourie. “We have the general crowd that comes for the drinks and quite a following who come to watch the bands, and we cover jazz, blues, rock and pop to cater for all genres.”
One recent evening starred Absinthè, an acoustic rock act with Cito, the lead singer of Wonderboom, and Paul Flynn from Sugardrive.
The Brazen Head, corner of Linden Street and Ann Crescent, Strathavon, Sandton. Call 011 783 6122. www.brazenhead.co.za
Okay, I admit I haven’t been to Mish Mash. I walked in once but instantly felt ancient. If you’re over 40 everyone will assume you’ve come to collect your errant teenagers and drag them home.
It serves cheap booze at even cheaper wooden tables and benches. The main attraction are the Tuesday night comedy sessions, when wannabe and possibly dreadfully unfunny comics are shown the ropes – or shown the door – by old hands like John Vlismas.
Mish Mash, 20 Gleneagles Road, Greenside, Joburg. Call 011 026 2915.