Greasepaint and terror: Cape Town Theatre review

Posted: January 27, 2009 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews

©Astrid Stark

Cape Town Theatres: Published:  The Sunday Independent, 2008


Multiple award-winning satirist, playwright and author, Pieter-Dirk Uys, recalls some of his early olfactory memories of the theatre, “It’s a cross between greasepaint and terror; hot glue and stale perfume.”  Uys is referring to the UCT’s Little Theatre in Cape Town where he started his lifelong romance with theatre as a drama student in 1965. 


Cape Town’s theatrical landscape has changed since the 60’s and 70’s when Uys first started shaking up South African audiences.  Today, racial exclusion in accordance with an apartheid policy is no longer an issue, but South African theatres have to continuously reinvent themselves, keep expanding their products, and find innovative ways to combat financial restraints.


Pieter-Dirk Uys shares a few of his memories as we visit Cape Town’s established theatres, and some of the smaller theatres that constitute a vital entry point for aspiring actors.  In the words of Uys, “The future of theatre rests in these brave, mad places.  They must be nurtured and supported, and when they put on crap they must be klapped – and still be supported and nurtured.”


The late Dr W. Duncan Baxter bequeathed money to the University of Cape Town for the purpose of establishing a theatre which would develop and cultivate the arts in Cape Town. 


Since opening in 1977, The Baxter Theatre Centre has continued to provide a stage for all types of professional entertainment.   


The Baxter’s Director, Mannie Manim, started his theatrical career as an usher. His first experience at a show was at ‘Sailor Beware’ and Manim recalls standing in the gallery on his training night and being “totally transported.” “I left the theatre enthralled but none the wiser as to what it is an usher does.” says Manim.  


His love for theatre firmly entrenched; Manim rapidly worked his way up the ladder as stage, production and administrative manager, in a variety of theatres.  Around six years after Manim and Barney Simon established the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, Manim took on the challenge as the Baxter’s Director. 


The Baxter consists of a 666 seat theatre and a concert hall with a Von Beckerath organ that seats 638 people. The intimate Sanlam Studio Theatre has 172 seats.  


In 1981 Pieter-Dirk Uys performed ‘Adapt or Dye’ at the concert hall.  Uys recalls, “It was like going to the gallows and then finding that the gallows was a fashion shop.  I left with a big pink hat and a successful show. I love the Baxter. It is my Cape Town womb. The Market Theatre is my Joburg womb. And The Old Space Theatre was my erection!”


The Artscape Theatre Centre, opened in 1971 as the Nico Malan Theatre and belonged to the provincial administration.


The Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB) was instituted in the early sixties to promote the performing arts. The arts councils received government subsidies to fund the various art forms as well as its operational requirements.


With the dawning of our democracy, government policy changed dramatically. Pieter Dirk Uys recalls the ‘Cry Freemandela’ performance at the old Nico Malan in 1986.   Nkosi Sikele was being played before the show and the bemused cast watched an audience that did not know if they should sit, stand or leave.   “Playing the Nico was like doing ‘Fiddler on the Roof’, in Nuremberg’,” says Uys.


Fortunately for all South Africans those days are long gone and people of all race may now enjoy the state of the art facilities at the Artscape complex.


The Opera House has a seating of 1 187; a theatre seating of 540; and a smaller theatre seating of up to 140.  There is also an impressive piazza, gardens and rehearsal rooms.


Michael Maas, an MBA qualified concert pianist, has been the Chief Executive of Artscape since 1997. He was born in Cape Town and his relationship with the theatre started at a young age when he attended an opera production at the Parow Civic Centre in Cape Town.


Maas says that one of biggest challenges facing theatres today ensuring the growth and sustainability of the performing arts. “This will be determined on how South African theatres reinvent themselves by expanding their products to be diverse and all inclusive, catering for the widest possible audience.” says Maas.


Despite the difficulties Maas says his job as Chief Executive offers great satisfaction. “Apart from discovering and developing new talent, it offers joy when audiences are entertained and delighted by the magic of the theatre.”


‘The Full Monty’ will be opening at Artscape Theatre, 26 July – 17 August. Theatre lovers can look forward to performances by, among others, Ilse Klink, Mike Huff, Tiaan Rautenbach, Steven Hicks and Judy Page.


The charming Maynardville Open-Air Theatre is situated in Wynberg and was conceived in the mid 1950’s by the tenacious, Cecelia Sonnenberg and Rene Ahrenson.  


During that time they were well known South African actresses who bullied the city councillors into creating a stage and raked auditorium.


The first production at Maynardville was ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ which ran to packed houses for a month.  Today, during the sultry summer months, Shakespeare aficionados sip on Rosé next to a sweet little dam, complete with weeping willows and chattering geese, before slowly ambling towards the theatre.   


Pieter-Dirk Uys recalls being auditioned by, as he calls them, The Merry Wives of Maynardville’s  Ms Sonnenberg and Madam Ahrenson, who said: “Darling, there is no money. This is experience, but your Afrikaans accent is just not right for Hamlet.”  


Uys gasps, “I thought I was auditioning for a spear carrier.  I love Shakespeare. I heard him in Afrikaans for the first time and thought he was from Bloemfontein.”


Thanks to the perseverance of the ‘Merry Wives of Maynardville’ generations of boys and girls discovered that they understand the Elizabethan language.  Some might even find that the 400 year old plays could be as fresh and captivating as any contemporary drama.  

The 2009 Shakespeare-in-the-Park performance will be, ‘As you like it’, directed by Geoffrey Hyland.


The initial concept for On Broadway was basic:  a simple cabaret restaurant offering an optional meal and an entertaining show. As the popularity of the venue grew, and as the profile heightened, it was obvious that the need for such a venue was as great as the need for an affordable and enjoyable evening of entertainment.  Thus founder Russell Shapiro decided on 88 Shortmarket Street in the heart of the CBD as the ideal venue. 


 Shapiro’s mission has always been, “to give top quality shows with good affordable food and to improve on the concept of the other venues that I’ve been to.” 


 Shapiro names production costs for private and small theatres as one of their biggest obstacles. “The talent is unbelievable, and if only there were culture lovers who could recognise what we do and assist by sponsoring the productions we would be able to keep Capetonians entertained forever.”


There is certainly no shortage of talent.  Marc Loterring’s latest offering ‘Naughty Forty’ is showing at On Broadway until 31 August


Pieter Toerien’s Theatre on the Bay hosted not only international stars like Sir Ian McKellan, Bea Arthur and Ennio Marchetto, but also created love matches within the local industry.


When Pieter Toerien produced ‘Frankie and Jonny in the Clair de Lune’, one of the first shows at Theatre on the Bay, the two stars Jana Cilliers and Bill Flynn, fell in love and subsequently married.


In 2004 Pieter Toerien changed the small-venue idea of Theatre on the Bay with the first of four big musicals: ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’, ‘Hair’ and  currently ‘Chess’ – all playing to capacity and critical acclaim.


Associate professor Christopher Weare established The Intimate Theatre in December 2002.  The theatre belongs to the University of Cape Town and is operated under the Little Theatre. 


 The Intimate Theatre was created to accommodate the overwhelming creativity of young professional theatre practitioners particularly based in Cape Town. 


Professor Weare says that for the past 2 years the theatre has been booked out for the full 48 weeks and that its primary role is to, “create a space where new professional theatre pieces can be staged without high risk; where professional theatre practitioners can experiment and try out productions.”


On Monday nights the Theatre Sports crew performs at the Intimate Theatre.

Masque Theatre, Muizenberg


In 1957 Bertie Stern, the Chairman of the South Peninsula Dramatic Society, was a worried man.   The costs for hiring halls for staging amateur theatre were ever increasing.  There were talks of disbanding the Society.


Bertie bought a derelict hall for what he later called, a ‘laughable amount’, and with a little help from his friends he started renovations.  Bertie’s insistence on a multi-racial theatre in what was then a non-multiracial society caused massive delays as the powers-that-be tried every trick in the book to prevent the creation of his theatre.


Bertie and friends persevered and 1959 saw the grand opening of the Masque Theatre in Muizenberg.   Bertie’s philosophy was that one should lead a life of service to all in the community irrespective of colour, class or religion.  He saw amateur theatre as a means to this end.   Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park shows until 16 August. 


The Kalk Bay Theatre is a 78-seater theatre and restaurant located on the Main Road, Kalk Bay. It was built in 1876 and is a heritage protected building that has been lovingly converted into an intimate theatre with the restaurant on the upper floor.  


The open-plan restaurant has been designed to create a feeling of eating in a warm, family kitchen.  Wooden tables and chairs are set around a gallery, allowing customers to look down onto the stage below.    


From 16 August patrons can watch My Father’s shoes – my mother’s hat, the new Aldo Brincat play.


Pieter-Dirk Uys tell us how he found the dilapidated Old Darling Station in 1995. “I came upon it. Rented it for R70 a month and built a stage.”  


“People said I was mad. Mad in the theatre is good. It means no one has thought of it before.”  And so Evita se Perron has grown into an international venue.  


Visitors to Evita se Perron will attest to the venue’s individuality.  At the museum, called a nauseum by some, you will find possibly South Africa’s largest collection of apartheid era memorabilia.  ‘Die Slag van Bloedrivier’ hangs next to ‘Piet Retief’s ‘Moord in die Kraal’ and other Voortrekker Monument kitsch.


In the Boerassic Park, Cape Technicon students created the ultimate gravy train sculptures. There is comrade Thabo on his plane and Leader Tony Leon in his pram – throwing his toys.  Some depict memorable moments in our history; Eugene Terreblance falling of his horse and the irrepressible Winnie Mandela in her bath with just a soccer-booted foot visible above the water.  


In August, old favourites like ‘Evita for President’and ‘Tannie Evita Praat Kaktus’ will be on show.


There are many Cape Town theatres not mentioned here that also work hard to fulfil our need to escape for a moment from the somewhat bleak realities of our current socio-political climate.  


Big or small, new or well-established, all South African theatres remind us of our history, and frequently offer a glimpse into the future as imagined by the performance artists of our time.  As Tannie Evita often says, “If we acknowledge where we come from, we will understand where we are going.”



Pieter Dirk-Uys at the Newspace Theatre in Cape Town.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s