Theatre inspired by words

“What we have seen in the festival this week, is words that have inspired, conspired, interrogated, critiqued, analysed and reflected and I could add a lot more to that,” says Ismail Mahomed, Artistic Director of the National Arts Festival.

“Artists have always found inspiration somewhere,” says Mahomed. South Africa has a history of producing dynamic and empathetic works particularly during times of oppression and suffering.  The struggle brings people together and provokes stories portraying the indomitable human spirit.

The authors of My Johannesburg

“Apartheid produced only one good thing: Anti-Apartheid, and in a sense, it gave us a country,” says Albie Sachs. “I was thinking, I worked with the defiance campaign in 1952 and the volunteering chief was a certain Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. We would have never had met each other.”

In these small but powerful moments, history was being made. Stories were lived that would one day be shared with the world as a reminder of the greatness that can be achieved when members of the human race come together to achieve something pure and just. “There was a time where we could clearly say that artists had a crutch in this country to write from, particularly in theatre, and that was a political crutch,” says Mahomed. “Post-1994, we saw a shift in writing. The apartheid crutch has fallen away, a lot of writing had shifted and new works were being created.”

The struggle left a legacy of stories that need to be told. There is such a great diversity in South Africa. Not just South Africans, but writers and artists from around the world whose lives and ideologies have been changed by the country and its people. Perhaps it is for this reason that, as Mahomed notes, “We’ve seen a number of works on the main program that have been inspired by novels.”

Following a conversation about their book, My Johannesburg that took place earlier in the day, co-authors Albie Sachs and Margit Niederhuber, join Marcel Meyer, director of Ruth First: 117 Days, the theatre production of the novel about First’s time in prison, on a panel, Words that Inspire and Conspire.

Ruth First: 117 Days

Marcel Meyer

Meyer reflects on the challenges of adapting works for theatre. “As far as possible, almost everything that you heard was what Ruth had written. It wasn’t a free adaptation in terms of taking a book and then writing a completely independent play,” he says.

Actress Jackie Rens approached Meyer with the idea of recreating First’s work. “It was an opportunity for our company to do a South African classic, not just a classic from Europe or the states,” says Meyer.

“The challenge is always how one condenses something that a writer has a lot more time to explore in 120-200 pages…. It’s like trying to make a haiku out of a book,” says Meyer.

However, it wasn’t all challenging. “The genre of a one-women show suited Ruth’s book so perfectly because it is about isolation, about being alone, so it was almost an extended Shakespearean soliloquy where she’s in her head but where we become conscious, where she can grapple with us as an audience with what she’s feeling…”

“The strength of the play is rested in the fact that you have a wonderfully human character with flaws, with strengths, which makes for really good theatre. But is also story that is located within a particular political context at a particular political time,” reflects Mahomed.

My Johannesburg


“There are multiple Jo’burgs populating that area and what comes through is the vivacity of the multiple communities and people, individuals who are in Johannesburg,” reflects Sachs on My Johannesburg.

The book begins decades before it was written. It begins with its author, Niederhuber finding the inspiration for its creation. “In the 70s, when everything was very revolutionary and [called for] liberation in Africa, I got very excited and went to Mozambique to write my thesis there, and I met Albie.” At the time, Mozambique was a country full of stories “of revolution and independence and new ideas and feminism,” says Niederhuber. After being exiled in 1966, Sachs worked in Mozambique as a law professor and legal researcher. “At a very personal level, [struggle] brought Margit Niederhuber and Albie Sachs together,” notes Sachs.

While South Africa struggles with issues of poverty, crime and injustice, Niederhuber notes that European countries often fail to see a more rounded perspective of the country.

On the other hand, you have a middle class and you have artists and you have a lot of people who are full of energy to make new things, and so I started to write books on African cities… I always have the feeling I’m moving from one city to the other and I’m meeting so many interesting people and I have so many interesting projects.

When writing the book, Niederhuber approached Sachs, a familiar face in South Africa. “In Johannesburg, it was Albie who I could talk with. He started to make the introduction, he wrote an essay on Johannesburg and he introduced me to some friends.”

Niederhuber and Sachs have vastly different relationships with Johannesburg. “I have been very often to Johannesburg since I have been allowed to come here. I was [there] the first time I think in 1992 or 1993, because as I was an active member of the anti-apartheid movement I never got the resources,” reflects Niederhuber.

My Johannesburg is a compilation of voices, all of whom have a different and unique relationship with the city. “I always try to find different people and make interviews with them… These interviews are [with] people who are young and old and coming from different backgrounds,” Niederhuber says. “Usually in Maputo and in all the other cities, I was working with one photographer but in Johannesburg I was trying to find as many different photographers.”

Niederhuber’s books are intended not only for European audiences but also for the people whose story she is sharing. “The interviews are always [included] in the book in the original language, plus in German. I always have two languages… because people I am interviewing should have a chance to read it too,” Niederhuber notes.

“Nothing connects you more to the city than doing clandestine work in the city,” reflects Sachs. Sachs was appointed by Mandela to the Constitutional Court in 1994 and retired in 2009. For Sachs, the Court is symbolic of the culture of Johannesburg.

“You put up a court in the heart of old Fort Prison, and I always say, we South Africans have the only prison in the world where both Ghandi and Mandela were locked up. No one else can make this claim… That why I feel so elated going to work every day. I don’t feel I’m a white person in a white area, a white person in a black area, a white person in an area that’s transforming. I just feel I’m Albie going to work in a South African court in South Africa. And that’s the introduction of this book,” says Sachs.

It’s an impressionistic book with a number of different voices and lovely photographs. It’s a kaleidoscopic kind of a book but not told in the master narrative. It’s just multiple voices coming in and its provocative diversity is part of Jo’burg. – Sachs

My Johannesburg has been produced as a live show on the National Arts Festival programme. “I’ve known Christian Radovan for quite some time,” says Niederhuber. Radovan grew up in South Africa and moved back to Austria. “He was moved [and] he had the feeling in all these interviews, there was something like hope… and people standing up and saying ‘ok we have to do something,’” recalls Niederhuber. “He put this to music and there’s a spoken word artist who will take some of the texts… and I’m very curious and very excited to see it.”

Photograph featured in My Johannesburg

Other works being adapted for theatre include: Lara Foot’s The Inconvenience of Wings, Sylvia Vollenhoven’s The Keeper of the Kumm, Neil Coppen’s Animal Farm, Khayelihle Dom Gumede’s Crepuscule, and Artscape’s OoMaSisulu.

Words that inspire and conspire

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