Arts and Culture 2007-2015


"War Horse" and SA-UK theatre dynamics

First appeared
Thursday, 09 August 2012


Make no mistake: War Horse is big. Before Steven Spielberg’s film version appeared last year, the stage play – based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 youth novel – was already established in London and New York as “the theatrical event of the decade” on the West End (according to the British Times) and the best production on Broadway (as rated by Time magazine).

The story in the show – an epic First World War narrative of the relationship between a young man, Albert Narracott, and his horse, Joey – is only tangentially connected to South Africa: the spectre of the “Anglo-Boer” War looms over the Narracott family. But the story of the show is important to this country, for its critical accolades (multiple Tony and Olivier awards) and its commercial success (the highest-ever weekly gross on the West End) both stem from a South African creation.

The outstanding feature of War Horse is the portrayal of Joey and other horses through life-size puppets, the work of Basil Jones and Adrian Kohler, founders of South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company. Yet, while local audiences have had ample opportunity to see Handspring’s work in other shows – Woyzeck on the Highveld, Faustus in Africa, Ubu and the Truth Commission and many others over the last thirty years – War Horse has yet to reach our shores (it is, however, being produced in Australia, Canada and Germany).

The worldwide success of Handspring is cause for celebration. Indeed, there should be something liberating about Jones and Kohler’s integration into international theatre networks – evidence that we are overcoming those local/global anxieties that grew out of South Africa’s colonial history, were compounded by apartheid isolation and are still acutely felt. Yet War Horse, as a production of the Royal National Theatre, is also an episode in a sometimes-fraught history: what one might call the “theatrical tension” between South Africa and England.

One aspect of this tension stems from the phenomenon of South African theatre practitioners leaving to train and work with British institutions. This is hardly a surprising phenomenon, given both the dominance of London as a theatre centre and the obvious UK-SA cultural, linguistic and economic ties. But there are some fascinating nuances. Consider the cases of (Dame) Janet Suzman and (Sir) Antony Sher, both of whom left apartheid-era South Africa and subsequently became icons of the English stage.

Sher’s returns to the country of his birth have been controversial. In 1995, he and partner Gregory Doran collaborated with the Market Theatre on a production of Titus Andronicus. The show’s reception betrayed surprising discomfort with “South Africanised” Shakespeares – for many white English-speaking South Africans, Shakespeare had previously been an umbilical cord tying them to the British mother-country – but simultaneously provoked resistance to the notion of an exile-turned-outsider returning to “enlighten” his former fellow citizens. This pattern was repeated when Sher appeared opposite John Kani in Janice Honeyman’s The Tempest at the Baxter Theatre in 2009 (a co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company).

sher kani tempest

Suzman, on the other hand, has a less fractious relationship with her sometime compatriots. Her Shakespearean visits to South Africa have been, by turns, explicit political statements (as when she directed Kani as Othello at the Market in 1987) and deliberately “unselfconscious” syntheses of South African and cosmopolitan concerns (such as her Hamlet at the Baxter in 2006, which also starred Kani).

It’s worth noting that each of these productions enjoyed a much more positive reception in the UK than at home. Is this because British audiences, less attuned to the complexities of life in South Africa, were content with simplified renditions of the state of the nation to which local audiences objected? Or might it have something to do with a taste for the “exotic”, which arguably drove the British enthusiasm for a musical like Umoja – the singing/dancing/drumming/foot-stomping natives motif? There are precedents here: Ipi Tombi and Umabatha (the “Zulu Macbeth”), both of which first appeared on the London stage at the height of the cultural boycott.

Perhaps this also affects the reception of a company like the Isango Ensemble which, under the leadership of English-born Mark Dornford-May and South African diva Pauline Malefane, has explored more subtle European/African hybrids in its adaptations of operas such as The Magic Flute and Carmen. Their rendition of The Mysteries was, again, more widely praised in the UK than in South Africa. Earlier this year, Isango dramatised Venus and Adonis for London audiences at the Globe to Globe Festival, during which the works of Shakespeare were performed in languages other than English. It is telling that uVenas no Adonisi has not been formally staged in the country where people actually speak isiXhosa, Afrikaans and isiZulu. Many South African theatre-makers lack opportunities to exercise their craft.

This, really, is what drives many to the UK and to London in particular: arts funding and infrastructure, an established theatre culture, a reliable audience base. Fortunately, pursuing opportunities to perform abroad does not preclude a career based on “South African” reputation: Dorothy Ann Gould, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Fiona Ramsay and of course Kani himself are among the veteran South African actors who have made numerous appearances on British stages. Kani and Winston Ntshona received acclaim in England for The Island and Antigone – and the playwright with whom they are both still most often associated outside of South Africa, Athol Fugard, remains a prominent presence in the UK (although it is Fugard’s popularity in the United States that is primarily responsible for his international reputation).

A younger generation of thespians followed in their footsteps, bringing back to South Africa fresh ideas that they have implemented without insecurities over “cultural capital” and national identity. Nina Lucy Wylde and James Cairns, inspired by seeing the work of the Factory Theatre in London (noted for its site-specific, improvisational but text-oriented interpretations of classic plays), pioneered the same concept locally through their Framework Theatre.

Omphile Molusi and Nicholas Pauling are amongst those who have benefited from a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company through the Brett Goldin Bursary, established by Sher and Suzman. Pauling affirms that, while performing for British and South African audiences may be different in theory, in practice it makes no difference: “All that ‘national’ stuff goes out the window when you walk onstage.”

What, then, defines a “South African” or a “British” play? Does it matter? If Sello Maake ka Ncube and Antony Sher perform Othello and Iago in Stratford (as they did in 2004, under Doran’s direction), is it “South African” Shakespeare? If Doran, emboldened by Kani’s claim that “Julius Caesar is Shakespeare’s African play”, directs a black cast in an RSC production set in Africa, is this “British”?


Cognate questions are posed in the work of playwright Craig Higginson, which has been performed in both South Africa and the UK. His latest play, Little Foot, portrays the psychological fracturing of a group of adolescents – English and South African, black and white. Meeting for a reunion in the Cradle of Humankind, they are forced to confront their affinities with the behavior of the “primitive” hominids who once populated the area. Importantly, Higginson reminds us that nationality and ethnicity are comparatively recent constructs in the human story.

Perhaps, then, SA-UK theatrical tensions are overstated. After all, War Horse is not only an “English” story; it, too, ultimately affirms a human-animal dynamic that transcends nationality.



The FM bolsters its feature articles with a "7 Questions" supplement. I asked playwright and novelist Craig Higginson to tell me briefly about his own experience of SA and UK theatre:

craig higginson

1. When and why did you first decide to work in England?

I went there on holiday in 1995 and came back almost ten years later. Rather a lengthy holiday!


2. What sort of experience did you gain?

I worked at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Young Vic. Most influential was the director Tim Supple – a wonderful man and inspirational director.


3. What was the chief influence your time there had on your subsequent career as a theatre practitioner?

Works at theatres like the Royal Court inspired me to try writing plays that are challenging in both form and content, while also being connected to contemporary social issues.


4. Could South African writers, actors and directors trying to establish themselves in London be seen as enacting a kind of “colonial cringe”?

We are all citizens of the world, wherever we are from. It is the job of writers to imagine alternatives to the usual categories. Actors and directors often think it’s greener on London’s side of the fence – and often find it greyer.


5. Are there “fundamental” differences between theatre-making conditions and practices in the two countries?

The South African theatre scene is small and sometimes claustrophobic. There are too few producers and opportunities. But theatre in South Africa also has an urgency and vibrancy to it that most UK theatre lacks – we are still doing battle for the soul of our country.


6. Can you comment on differences in audience and critical responses to your plays between the UK and South Africa?

In these terms, my plays have been more successful in the UK than South Africa. South African audiences are quite conservative and want to see either complete escapism or their own lives directly reflected.


7. What about the South African reception of British productions/performers?

White audiences in South Africa enjoy the more commercial imports. We had a brilliant UK production of Blackbird at the Market Theatre a few years ago that no one came to. Maybe it’s different for performers: Marianne Oldham, the British actress in my play The Girl in the Yellow Dress, received huge accolades here.


* Little Foot is at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg until 19 August

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