Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Review: Abnormal Loads

First appeared
Thursday, 26 April 2012


We have (if the nationwide epidemic of rape is anything to go by) the most pathological gender relations. We have the most violent (unpoliced, unprosecuted or unimprisoned) criminals. We have the most corrupt (or inept, or indifferent) government. The most abominable wealthy-poverty gap, the most vexed legacy of racial conflict.

These are the maudlin declarations one is lured into making when the vicissitudes of life in South Africa become overwhelming. Whatever “normal” may be – and we assume there must be normality in other countries, other continents – it seems fair to claim that our collective birthright is to carry, as the title of Neil Coppen’s latest play has it, “Abnormal Loads”: loads of guilt, fear, anger, prejudice, material privation, physical suffering.


Dance in South Africa (circa 2012)

First appeared
Thursday, 22 March 2012

When the company of Moving into Dance Mophatong (MIDM) performed a few sequences from their work “Dirty Laundry” to kickstart festivities at the recent Naledi Theatre Awards, they were enthusiastically received. The high-energy performance seemed to celebrate showbiz razzmatazz, the sequins and glitz and glamour to which the Naledis aspire. Audience members, most of them entertainment industry ‘insiders’ of one kind or another, lapped it up.

Then comedian Alan Committee appeared onstage and, as MC for the evening, proceeded to deflate the collective ego of those present with a series of jibes poking fun at his fellow applause-junkies. They took it in good humour, but few of them realised that this was just a continuation of the tone struck by “Dirty Laundry”. The piece, performed in its entirety during the 2012 edition of the annual Dance Umbrella - which closed the day before the Naledis - was pitched as “a spoof on how seriously many of us in the world of entertainment take ourselves” (


Print books, e-books, art books: Visual Century

First appeared
Thursday, 09 February 2012

In our era of e-readers and tablets, the prevailing wisdom is that printed books are destined to become moribund. At best, they’ll be quirky relics of centuries gone by that are kept for the sake of nostalgia; at worst, clunky tomes that are chucked into the recycling bin of history.

Those of us inclined to pontificate about the talismanic qualities of hard copy – to cherish the relationships we’ve built with particular books, or to celebrate the texture and smell of volumes old and new – tend to come across as reactionaries, luddites or even anti-environmentalists. And, to be fair, even the most ardent admirer of bookshelf porn (oh yes, it’s a recognised category – have a look at sometimes envies the convenience of a readily searchable, easily portable, personal library.


Review: Somewhere on the Border

First appeared
Thursday, 02 February 2012

The Market Theatre’s international reputation is such that, when overseas visitors to Johannesburg who are interested in theatre want to sample some local dramatic “kultcha”, they typically head to Newtown to see what’s on. American, British and German accents are often to be heard in the auditorium while the house lights are on. With the curious arrogance I share with many of my compatriots, I find this amusing when the production promises to be one laden with socio-political references and linguistic quirks specific to South Africa.   

What will they make of it?, I wonder. Will they “get” it? Surely not.

Rather condescendingly, then, as the lights and the foreign voices went down at the start of Somewhere on the Border, I assumed there’d be lots of confused faces and questions later – questions I could help to answer, drawing not on any special theatre knowledge but on the simple fact of my South African citizenship. There’s nothing like an opportunity to “explain” your country to a foreigner to make you feel snug in (and smug about) your national identity.

Review: My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish ...

First appeared
Thursday, 01 December 2011

Like all major world cities, New York defies easy generalisations. Brooklyn, Broadway and the Bronx are utterly different; Harlem and Wall Street have almost nothing in common. Yet somehow the phrase “typical New Yorker” retains its currency. The typical New Yorker is skeptical, brash, impatient, creative, more than a little neurotic, has a wry sense of humour and says “kwaa-fee” instead of “coffee”.

Woody Allen has a lot to answer for on this score.

Review: A Living Man from Africa

First appeared
Tuesday, 04 October 2011

When South Africa’s history is told and re-told, standard narratives tend to overlook the peacemakers. It is, in a sense, anomalous that Nelson Mandela secured his place at the apex of the country’s political pantheon not through the radical rhetoric of his youth but through his role as a reconciliatory statesman; for hundreds of years prior to Madiba’s diplomacy, the role of the arbitrator, the go-between, was held in disdain by those committed to the path of either violent oppression or violent opposition.

From hensoppers (Boer fighters who surrendered to the British) to verraaiers, from non-striking “scabs” to so-called apartheid “collaborators”, the punishment has been severe: at worst, hanging or necklacing, but at best, ostracism and neglect.

Robert Mugabe - What Happened?

First appeared
Thursday, 18 August 2011

Every South African has a “Zim story”. They range from “I have family/friends in Zimbabwe who lost their farm” to “Zimbabweans get all the piece work because they’re cheaper to hire”; from “I protected a Zimbabwean refugee from xenophobic attacks” to “Zimbabwean criminals are worse than Nigerians!”

Certainly, all of us are directly or indirectly affected by events in Zimbabwe. But too often, behind the Zim stories told by South Africans – both black and white, both rich and poor – there lurks the spectre of another claim: “South Africa is heading the way of Zimbabwe.” In the past, this invocation demonstrated a reactionary misunderstanding of the major historical, economic, constitutional and social differences between the two countries.

Review : So What's New?

First appeared
Thursday, 14 July 2011

If you’ve ever attended a party or concert at which the revellers were singing along to Brenda Fassie’s iconic “Weekend Special”, you may have noticed some confusion over the chorus. Are the lyrics “I’m no weekend special” or “I’m your weekend special”? (It seems that Ma-Brrr herself sang both versions.)

The ambivalence is significant. “I’m no weekend special” is an affirmation of self-worth and independence; these are the words of a woman rejecting a philanderer. The alternative expresses a bitter but resigned attitude; these are the words of a woman protesting about being exploited but still tolerating the exploiter. (It’s telling, for example, that misogynistic rapper Keith Murray sampled Fassie’s melody in a track titled “I’m Your Weekend Special”.)

Five Pirates of Penzance

First appeared
Thursday, 23 June 2011

Until the mid-1990s, it was common enough to see the names “Gilbert and Sullivan” emblazoned on the billings of professional repertory theatre companies, amateur dramatic societies and high school annual productions across South Africa. As the local performing arts landscape changed, however, resistance to imported British cultural products grew – and rightly so, because they had (for too long) represented a kind of ‘colonial cringe’ on the part of many English-speaking South Africans who sought to remove themselves from the complexities and complicities of race politics through some notional connection to ‘Englishness’.

It is ironic that Gilbert and Sullivan were casualties of the anti-English sentiment, because their works constitute a sustained critique of British imperialism and jingoism. Pioneers of the operetta form – which developed into today’s musical theatre – ‘G&S’ were wildly popular in the late-nineteenth century as they lampooned the hypocrisy and folly of Victorian prudishness and class consciousness.

The artist and the people: Tretchikoff, Watson, Manisi

First appeared
Tuesday, 14 June 2011

“Great art,” wrote Victor Kiernan, “has its roots in the artist’s longing to reunite himself with the people from whom a divided society cuts him off.”

It remains a moot point as to whether or not the deep divisions in South African society have resulted in great art; either way, anxieties about being “cut off from the people” are particularly acute in this country. Given our fractured and fractious history – and the racial undertones that complicate phrases like “the people” – the tension between populism and elitism has defined many artistic careers.

Artists on Afrikaans identity ("Weet ek wie ek is?")

First appeared
Thursday, 09 June 2011

In a recent Alternative Dispute Resolution ruling, outspoken right-wing “Afrikaner activist” Dan Roodt was forced to hand over the domain names and to the man whose name actually appears in the URLs. This may prove to be a landmark decision in terms of how public figures protect their own online brands; it is also a small victory in the ongoing battle over Afrikaner identity.

Musical Messiahs?

First appeared
Thursday, 19 May 2011

Election season saw the ruling party adopting a variety of strategies to persuade South African voters that it should remain in power. Interestingly – and perhaps tellingly for a local government election centring on the issue of service delivery rather than ideology or historical loyalty – the African National Congress did not have recourse to its usual ‘messianic’ message: we are the party of the struggle icons, those visionary and brave leaders who saved the country through their sacrifices. Madiba was not trundled out, as he was in 2009, to help the ANC reinforce its grip on power.

It would be wrong, however, to assume that we have reached a post-apartheid moment in which these iconic figures are seen as ‘national treasures’, belonging to all South Africans irrespective of political affiliation. Moreover, it would be naïve to affirm that this county’s artists are in a position to assess the lives of political leaders over the second half of the twentieth century without being co-opted into the machinations of contemporary politics.

An interview with Athol Fugard

First appeared
Friday, 13 May 2011

It would be understandable if, in anticipation of receiving a Tony Lifetime Achievement Award in New York next month – the first non-American to be recognised in this way by the most prestigious prize-giving body in the theatre world – Athol Fugard were feeling satisfied with his life’s work and perhaps a little self-congratulatory.

When I meet with him, however, the eighty-year-old playwright demonstrates more interest in his current and future projects than in the thirty-odd plays that gave rise to, and have sustained, his international reputation. He describes “a sense of urgency to ‘get it out’, to write all the stuff I still need to write before I keel over”.

A perfectly farcical non-wedding

First appeared
Thursday, 28 April 2011

For Serious Theatre People, especially those who get paid to be Serious about Theatre (such as myself), it’s useful to have childhood memories of Serious productions that inspired you to be Serious. Those of my generation – let’s call it Generation X – can call on any one of numerous examples: an early performance of Woza Albert, say, or a new Athol Fugard play that would go on to become a classic, or even the opening of an iconic musical such as District Six. Mentioning the radical but short-lived Space Theatre or the Market Theatre in its heady first years gets bonus points.

Donna Kukama: Becoming-Animal

First appeared
Thursday, 14 April 2011

Traditional categories such as “performing arts” (theatre, music, film) and “visual arts” (painting, sculpture, installations) have their uses when it comes to describing and interpreting artistic output. They are not, however, able to accommodate the multi-media or multi-modal work being produced by artists who reject attempts to categorise their work.

Donna Kukama is one such artist. She describes her performance interventions as a form of “resistance against already established ‘ways of doing’, inserting a foreign voice and presence into various territories of the public, a fragile and brief moment of ‘strangeness’.” In other words, she likes to make viewers of her work – whether they are willing or unwitting participants – feel uncomfortable.

Latest from Arts & Culture