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Mandela’s Land stakes a claim in the heart of Manchester’s theatreland

Jean Meiring

“In South Africa you have a tradition of theatre which is socially committed, passionate and connected to the deepest currents of human society and the human heart.”

The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, one of Britain’s foremost regional theatres, recently staged two South African plays under the seasonal sobriquet “Mandela’s Land”. Aubrey Sekhabi’s On My Birthday and Paul Herzberg’s The Dead Wait were performed in tandem with Othello.

Jean Meiring quizzed Jacob Murray, director of The Dead Wait, about the season, and about his role in it.

Lit: Why the “Mandela’s Land” season? What was the background to it? What were the originators’ motives and intentions? Whose idea was it?

JM: “Mandela’s Land” came out of my reading The Dead Wait. I had encountered Paul Herzberg as an actor in plays I saw as a teenager, and it so happened that my partner, Clarissa Young, was in a film he was making. She dragged me to the wrap party. That was where I met Paul properly for the first time. He told me about The Dead Wait and gave me a copy. I knew the minute I finished it that I wanted to direct it. I was just about to start a year’s work at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, part of which would be a production of my own in its Studio Theatre. The Dead Wait was the play I wanted to do.

The Exchange has something of a tradition of doing black and African work with a celebrated première of Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, two Fugards and work by James Baldwin and Lorraine Hansbury on their main stage. In a document I was asked to write with one of the associate directors, I argued that the Exchange needed to build and expand this tradition and that we should do a season of plays in the Studio comprising African work.

The original idea was that the season would consist of a South African piece dealing with the relationship between black and white in Africa (The Dead Wait), a sub-Saharan piece dealing with an exclusively black African experience, and then a North African piece dealing with the Arab world.

We read plays from Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and a host of other countries. It was then, at a reading of Aubrey Sekhabi’s play On My Birthday at the Old Vic in London, that I felt I had found the perfect companion piece to The Dead Wait.

I presented it to the artistic directors at the Exchange and the season became exclusively South African. This gave it a less generalised flavour and — we hoped — would present “news from the front” from that country. People in Britain understand South Africa through the dramas of Athol Fugard, which are wonderful but from a different era. We felt is was time to present plays from the next generation of writers which deal with the aftermath of Apartheid.

The Dead Wait, which deals with the end of white majority rule and the search for some kind of understanding of how the racial politics of the nation might progress, gave — we felt — an insight into the white experience in post-Apartheid South Africa, while On My Birthday showed us what is happening right now in the townships.

With this in mind, we were delighted when Poloko Nkobi, the Cultural Attaché at the South African High Commission told us on the press night that we had succeeded in what we had set out to do. She said that The Dead Wait was important because “we must never forget what happened” and that On My Birthday was important because “it told us what was happening right now.”

The title “Mandela’s Land” was an accident. We wanted a name for this season of plays; I was asked by the marketing department for a list of possibilities. I suggested “Mandela’s Land” as a provisional working title and then I had to go off to direct a play somewhere else. When I got back, I discovered it was on all the publicity material!

In the event, it helped the season because it gave the British audience a way into it. After Athol Fugard, Mandela is the one name indelibly associated in British minds with South Africa. In a sense he helped sell the plays to the Brits.

Lit: As you said, you directed Paul Herzberg’s play The Dead Wait. Tell us about this play, which, despite its being touted as one of the most significant plays of the post-apartheid era, is little-known in the country it depicts.

JM: From what I understand of the reception of The Dead Wait in South Africa — and I may be wrong about this — certain parts of South African society hated it, while others loved it. Houses were very good, I’m told as well. Paul told me that black audience members often went out of their way to congratulate him, while some white audience members found it hard to take. From the reviews I’ve read, critical reaction was also hugely favourable. What is true is that the version done in South Africa was almost unrecognisable from the one we did over here.

The evolution of The Dead Wait is quite interesting. It started as a very baggy radio play, evolved into a three-act stage play for South Africa and is now a tight, torpedo of a play at only 1 hour and 40 minutes. After the South African production a whole character was removed, the entire structure was reworked and a great chunk of text was cut and reshaped.

At the same time, Paul was adapting it into a screenplay and several new scenes were added from that. What I read 18 months ago was one of the best and most powerful new plays I have ever encountered. I was given the Market Theatre version to read much later and could see the difference in quality quite clearly.

This may account for the muted reception it might have received in some quarters in South Africa. Paul’s reworking is extraordinary and inspired. Speeches gain resonance by being placed in different contexts, scenes become tighter and more powerful. It’s amazing.

In a nutshell, the play deals with the journey of its main character, Josh Gilmore, who brings the play into being by telling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about his experiences in Angola, 20 years after leaving South Africa after a sort of nervous breakdown during an athletics tournament.

The 40-year-old Josh tells us of how, while in the SADF Special Forces, his unit captured a high-ranking ANC officer George Josana during a raid. Forced by his Commanding Officer (CO) to carry the wounded man on his back across 60 km of Angolan bush to friendly lines, he undergoes all the horrors of battle. Then, just as the end is in sight, the squad is almost surrounded and the CO orders him to execute his prisoner whom, by this time, he has come to love as a fellow-human being. The first half ends with this terrible execution.

The second half returns to the present and deals with Josh’s attempts to find some kind of justice through George’s daughter, and by trying to track down his CO, who by now is a ruined version of his former self. The play ends with an extraordinary scene at the spot where George was shot.

I will say no more. You will have to read the play. Or better still, see it! I should also point out that the story of the journey across a battlefield with the wounded ANC man on the soldier’s back is all based on fact. It all actually happened — down to the summary execution.

Lit: What were the challenges faced by a young British director presenting to a British audience a play written in a very specifically South African idiom and portraying a — sadly — very specifically South African experience?

JM: This is a big one!

On the question of specificity there are two things to say. Firstly, yes, the context of the play is very specific and demanded huge amounts of research and respect paid to the truth of what went on and the suffering which people on both sides underwent and inflicted.

Secondly, the real genius of the play is its utter universality. The power and success of the piece with our audiences lay in the fact that you didn’t have to know anything about Angola or South Africa to understand it. The themes of the play — racial/cultural war and conflict, violence, integrity, guilt, justice, honour, truth and reconciliation — resonate far beyond its immediate context to embrace themes which affect everyone.

This is borne out by the fact that, since our production, the script is being considered in the Czech Republic, Israel, Bosnia, the USA, Denmark, Sweden and Australia. Wherever there are troubled spots in the world, wherever there is racial tension, the play speaks volumes.

What attracted me to it was its vision not of how different races and cultures could never come together, but of how they could, under even the most impossible circumstances. The tragedy in The Dead Wait is how this wonderful relationship begins to grow against the most appalling odds on the Angolan battlefield, and how it is destroyed by the weight of the racial hatred Apartheid was based upon.

Twenty years later no-one is forgiven, but the guilt and trauma is worked through in such a way that some kind of justice and reconciliation in a real sense can happen. For me this resonated very deeply and applied to my deepest hopes for the human race.

I myself am the product of a mixed-race marriage (Jewish-Gentile) and I have always seen racial differences as something which should be transcended. If my parents had not believed that we are all brothers beneath the skin I would not exist. Transcending those barriers is possible, can happen and must happen.

Wherever it does not, as we see by the growing storm clouds in India and Pakistan, the Middle East, the USA — indeed anywhere where identity is defined by race, religion or culture at the expense of others — it leads only to war, greed, conflict and death. So, in this sense, the power of The Dead Wait was absolutely accessible to me and it was this passion which drove me on.

To cope with the very specific nature of the play — its history and cultural references, etc — I undertook 18 months of unrelenting research. Alas, I could not afford to get to South Africa itself but I immersed myself in books, listened to music, watched films and documentaries, and — most importantly — spoke to a vast number of South Africans, both black and white.

As you know, there is a huge South African community in Britain, and in London in particular. The huge support and enthusiasm shown towards me by the South Africans I met when I mentioned this play I was doing, was overwhelming. People would suddenly brighten up when they heard that their story — the story of their country — was being told somewhere.

In the white community there were many who had served in Angola or who had lost brothers, cousins, husbands or sons there. Given the nature of the vow of silence and the shame surrounding what is seen as a “dirty war” — to this I have to add also obvious political and historical reasons — the suffering of the white population of South Africa under Apartheid is not talked about much.

Those who lost people in Angola and were kept in the dark have not yet been given the chance to have their grief recognised — the fact that the play dealt with the inside story of Angola was very important to many.

Paul himself served in Namibia in the 1970s, and a host of people came forward to tell me the most terrifying stories of what happened out there and how many ex-servicemen drank themselves to death or committed suicide because of what they had gone through. So by the time I got to the rehearsal room I was immersed in that universe.

Lit: How did the Manchester audiences react to the upsetting and perhaps at times, for them, impenetrable subject matter?

JM: Superbly well. Both shows sold out, hit their financial targets and made money. What is wonderful is our discovery that, far from feeling alienated by the material, people have an extraordinary hunger for it. Both plays spoke directly to night upon night of British theatre-goers, who were deeply moved and inspired by what they saw.

In South Africa you have a tradition of theatre which is socially committed, passionate and connected to the deepest currents of human society and the human heart. In Britain this tradition has all but died out. People were overwhelmed and delighted by the experience of coming to see theatre which challenged, excited and inspired them with its commitment to humanity and truth.

Aubrey and Paul are playwrights who write from a reforming soul. Over here audiences loved that, and have been expressing a desire for more of the same to us ever since. As a theatre director, it’s very empowering for me to know that people don’t just want to see anodyne tripe but want work which thrills them in this way.

Lit: The other play in the double bill was Aubrey Sekhabi’s On My Birthday. It was less well-received by critics. Do you think the criticism was fair? In The Guardian, for instance, Alfred Hickling called Sekhabi’s construction “brutally crass”.

JM: The criticism was totally unfair and caused a great deal of anger in the building. This is an interesting subject as it betrays a great deal about British attitudes towards South Africa and black writing. I should also point out that The Guardian and The Times were the only ones which gave On My Birthday negative reviews. All the other press loved it, including BBC Radio. The flood of people who came to see it testifies to the fact that the play spoke eloquently to people from very different backgrounds.

The production of On My Birthday, directed by Michael Buffong, was superb; wonderfully moving and powerful. Black South Africans and Namibians who saw it were absolutely clear as to the truth of the play and that it presented the reality of township life. What I think upset the critics was the fact that it did not present South Africa, and its black community in particular, as the happy “spirit of togetherness” place they would like it to be.

We were shocked at how little background information the national critics had about South Africa from the crass way in which they reviewed both plays. Again, the majority of Brits have stopped really following South African politics since Apartheid ended, an event which many of them felt — in their quintessentially self-congratulatory way — they had been part of.

The difficulties faced since 1994, which are reflected in both plays, they don’t really want to know about, because there is no clear right and wrong, no clear moral evil, no clear way in which they can feel better about themselves by thinking the right thoughts and saying the right things. The same thing is happening in Russia. Who in the West is interested in the suffering of the Russians since Communism ended? Or in Afghanistan now that the Taliban have gone?

To my mind the British critics who reviewed On My Birthday found themselves all at sea as to how to evaluate it because they hadn’t done their homework. Audiences had no problem, which shows that an open mind is always useful when evaluating a play. One critic complained that the plays weren’t like the “elegiac, lyrical plays of Athol Fugard”, which is a bit like saying “I don’t like Thomas Hardy because he doesn’t write like Dickens.”

The shadow of Fugard lies heavily over playwrights coming after him. Don’t get me wrong: I think Fugard is a genius, but I pity the South African writers who cannot avoid having their work compared — unfavourably — to his. The hidden agenda being given to them is: “Write like Fugard, tell us truths like he tells us and we will listen. Have your own voice and we won’t.”

The other factor that annoyed us was the apparent lack of interest these critics had in black lives separate from white influence. “We are interested when we see the horrors perpetrated on black people by white people. We are not interested in how black people interact with each other.”

I think we see this attitude again in how Zimbabwe is reported in this country. All reporting from Zimbabwe over here is about what is being done to the white farmers. Black Zimbabweans are almost never talked about, while they have been suffering far more and for far longer under Mugabe. The same thing happens in reports about the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli conflict is given extensive coverage, and rightly so, but when there are Arab-Arab conflicts they are glossed over.

It’s as if Arab or black lives are interesting only when Westerners are taking them. Black-black or Arab-Arab deaths don’t make headlines.

Finally, there’s the political-correctness issue which white people face when having to evaluate black plays. Aubrey’s work is extraordinarily brave in challenging the black community. His play Not With My Gun (co-written with Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom) goes further than any other play I know in warning against violence in the black community. Aubrey does for black South Africans what Fugard did for whites — challenging them to behave better, exposing their weaknesses, showing how they were victims, but also showing how they had a responsibility to be better people.

To me this is a sign of a true love for one’s country. Any great artist who cares about his people must challenge them as much as celebrate them. On My Birthday presents a vision of township life in which black people are as prone to violence and inhumanity as any other community on the planet, but he does so in order to reform such wrongs.

White critics in Britain perhaps feel uneasy about this kind of representation of black people. Aubrey writes out of a deep love for and anger about South Africa. I take my hat off to him for his bravery and integrity. We need more of his kind. But I can see — although not sympathise with it — how some people might find that uncomfortable.

Of course I may be wrong about this. Critics have a perfect right to say what they want. That’s their job and their prerogative. What I’ve said here is supposition, but the way in which On My Birthday was not recognised for what it was, was very frustrating.

I should say that On My Birthday was directed and acted by an all-British black cast who felt passionately about the importance of the play. It was a great piece of work.

Lit: What dialogue if any, do you think, was achieved between these two South African plays and the production of Othello, which ran in tandem with them?

JM: The scheduling of Othello originated from the South African season, extraordinarily enough. We were delighted that 56% of the audience of “Mandela’s Land” had also seen Othello — so people were getting the whole experience.

The idea behind the programming was for audiences to see the first great play to deal with how black and white people interacted in society and then, 400 years later, where have we got? The irony is that Othello himself would never have risen to the top of South African society under Apartheid in the way he has in Shakespeare’s play, which leads one to question just how far we have come …

On another level, by a strange coincidence, all three plays really did overlap. The Dead Wait is about soldiers, mind-games and how white racism can express itself in the destruction and humiliation of another race. On My Birthday is about domestic violence and sexual tension between a couple.

So in fact all three plays spoke to each other in a very exciting way. The idea was that all could stand on their own but if you saw all three you would get a bigger picture. From the feedback we got, it worked.

Lit: Having whetted your appetite, and having learnt something about South Africa and — at the very least — its rich variety of accents and voices, would you be keen to attempt something akin to the co-production of the Market Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company some years ago, when Greg Doran directed Antony Sher in Titus Andronicus, with an exclusively South African cast?

JM: I would love to do something like that. Someone would just have to ask me! In setting up this season over here I’ve been in touch with the wonderful Mannie Manim (director of the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town) and, of course, Aubrey (who is artistic director of the Spoornet State Theatre in Pretoria). At some point it would be marvellous to try and set up some kind of cultural exchange between our three theatres. Time and circumstances would, I imagine, dictate that!

Lit: What are your fondest memories of the Mandela’s Land season?

JM: All of it, really. The delight of rehearsals with one of the best casts I have ever worked with, the thrill of getting to grips with such an inspirational play, the pleasure of immersing oneself in a foreign culture with such extraordinary possibilities, problems and contradictions, the support from South Africans both here and in their mother country, the satisfaction of realising a dream. But — most of all — witnessing the response of audiences who came not knowing what they were going to see and who emerged glowing with excitement and inspiration. It was an unforgettable experience. I miss it deeply!

Lit: Thank you, Jacob. This has been very interesting and insightful. Let’s hope the collaboration happens soon.

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