By: Brent Meersman  11-11-2011
Keywords: theatre

It has been a fraught year for theatre in Cape Town. Late in November, the Fugard Theatre, which opened in February this year, expelled its resident repertory company, Isango Portobello, following what Eric Abraham, the theatre’s British benefactor, called “the discovery of certain financial irregularities”, formally suspending creative director Mark Dornford-May.

London newspapers carried the story, with the Guardian running the headline: “All-black South African acting company evicted from theatre”, and the District Six Museum offering the performers temporary use of their Homecoming Centre.

The repertory company’s sole underwriter, Abraham, who likes to take the opportunities his patronage affords him to trumpet his activism in the 1970s, suddenly found himself on the receiving end of protest action.

In the heat of the moment, the acting company — headed by Dornford-May — issued a regrettable press statement likening their lockout to the forced removals from District Six under apartheid. The comparison is odious; this is a dispute about money.

It reflects a wider lack of sensitivity to South African history, and a willingness to exploit the legacy of the past, which has been a niggling hallmark of Isango Portobello since its inception.

Renewal of District Six
One night at the theatre, an elderly English patron on holiday remarked to me that he was stunned by the renewal and development in District Six. When he had last been “out here, it was all flattened”, he said.

He was one of many foreigners misled by the theatre’s marketing, which boasts that the theatre building is one “frequented by generations of District Six seamstresses and tailors”.

The Fugard has the original Congregational church hall in Caledon Street as its entrance, situated on the very periphery of what was District Six. The company and Dornford-May, who arrived in South Africa a few years ago, have no logical connection with that history.

The theatre has failed to build any significant relationship with coloured audiences — if anything, it has ignored them. In what is a smart but belated move, the theatre announced this week it will participate in the Suid-oosterfees next year, a major event on the local Cape cultural calendar.

When I spoke to Athol Fugard in February, then directing the world premiere of his play, The Train Driver, to launch the theatre that officially bears his name, he was uncomfortable with being an eponym. “I’m just going to call it the District Six theatre,” he told me.

It had taken the theatre’s then-executive director, Mannie Manim, months to persuade the playwright, who now lives in San Diego, California. Reportedly, he said: “I’m not dead yet.” As news of the protest action spread, someone in Vancouver tweeted, “Athol must be rolling in his grave”.

The visitors
At the gala opening in February, cabinet ministers and national politicians, such as Trevor Manuel (who is official patron of the Fugard Theatre) were present, but significantly not the Cape Town mayor or Western Cape premier.

What having Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe present at opening night is meant to achieve for the theatre troupe is hard to see. Several theatre luminaries from England were treated to the green room, while prominent Cape Town artists were left out in the foyer.

During the press tour given in January when the paint was still wet, Dornford-May repeated no less than three times that, with the exception of the Fugard play, the theatre would be performing only his company’s work.

Abraham and Manim (who unexpectedly resigned this week with immediate effect) seem to have had their own ideas — the theatre has staged work by other directors, including Sean Mathias, Marthinus Basson, Lara Bye and Pieter Dirk-Uys. Abraham put R18-million into creating the theatre, while Dornford-May worked with architect Shaun Adendorff on the design and supervised the construction.

Abraham is married to the Swedish Tetra Pak heiress, Sigrid Rausing, the daughter of Hans Rausing, whose estimated net worth of $10-billion places him as the 64th richest man in the world on the latest Forbes list. Sigrid Rausing’s charitable trust (which is not involved in the Fugard) has an annual philanthropic budget of £20-million and does some stunningly good work in the area of human rights.

Cultural commentator Sandile Memela wrote a letter to Business Day in February congratulating Abraham for having “finally launched the ‘home’ of black theatre”.

The 270-seat theatre is beautifully turned out, but, from its large communal dressing rooms to the small stage with only one entrance and no wing space, it is custom-built for Dornford-May’s ensemble work.

‘Street fighter’
Guest artists, including Sir Ian McKellen, who recently preformed at the theatre in Waiting for Godot, find themselves partitioned off by a curtain in the female dressing room. As stalwarts of the theatre, they don’t object, but it is a telling detail.

When speaking to people who knew Dornford-May in London, the phrase “street fighter” regularly crops up. His moodiness earned him the nickname Dark Mornford.

Members of Dornford-May’s previous South African theatre company, Dimpho Di Kopane (DDK), say the director changed radically during his tenure.

Andile Kosi, who was with the company from its inception (he now works for Boss Models) and is still very proud of the work he did there, says Dornford-May changed from an incredibly “generous” man who looked after them as though they were “fragile eggs” to someone who became increasingly authoritarian. If anyone questioned him they were summarily dismissed.

South Africa has been good to Dornford-May. He lives in a historic Cape Dutch manor house he has extensively renovated. He refers to his marriage to co-director and leading lady Pauline Malefane as a “mixed-race couple”.

They have children at elite private schools — a son at Bishops and a daughter at Herschel.

This is not the first time Dornford-May has been given a theatre home. When he arrived in South Africa from the Broomhill Opera, the Enthoven family of Spier, like Abraham, embraced him and gave him wholehearted commitment. Sources closely involved say tens of millions were spent on projects. Dornford-May has gumption and is able to sell people on his vision, one South Africa has been crying out for — a world-renowned black performance company.

Spier created a 200-seater venue at Lynedoch Eco Village. It opened on January 31 2006 as the repertory home for Dornford-May’s DDK company. In Dick Enthoven’s words at the time, it was part of the Spier Arts Trust’s dream to “enable the discovery and nurturing of new and exciting talent”. By June that year it was closed.

At the time, sources close to the events said financial irregularities in the form of unauthorised expenditure were the cause, but accountant Ralph Freese, who wound down the DDK company, says all the audits were passed.

The bad blood in DDK came to a head after the worldwide acclaim for their film, U-Carmen eKhayelitsha. Kosi says Dornford-May told them “we will all be rich”. The company went to welcome him at the airport on his triumphant return from the Berlin Film Awards. But despite its success, the promised financial returns did not materialise and deep unhappiness set in. One member asked why they could not melt down the Golden Bear statue the film had won and share that out among themselves.

The company’s trust in their director was irrevocably broken, despite him swearing to them on a Bible that there was no money to be had, says Kosi.

“We also had to buy our food from the canteen run by Pauline’s [Malefane] family,” a former DDK member says, “otherwise we would get looks.”

DDK made a second film, Son of Man, winner of the Festival Award for Best Feature at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles 2006. When members of the company asked who collected the prize and how much it was, Dornford-May “turned red”, says Kosi, who played Jesus in the film. Once again, there was no financial reward for the company.

Amid financial inquiries, first Malefane resigned, then shortly afterwards Dornford-May. The company tried to continue without him but its back had been broken. Spier was left to mop up the mess. Enthoven hired director Bonnie Rodenie to help the cast find new work.

Camilla Driver, formerly in a management position with DDK, says she wishes Dornford-May’s latest company, Isango Portobello, wasn’t dependent on a sole funder, but could have a diversity of backers to continue the work she describes as exceptional.

Dornford-May, after his initial reaction to their expulsion from the Fugard, went to ground and did not respond to attempts by the Mail & Guardian to reach him. Abraham has a reputation for being litigious.

“We would not have the support of people like District Six [Museum] if we were conmen,” Dornford-May volunteered to the Cape Times (November 24).

“Huge amounts of money were spent to fly and put up English artists in hotels in South Africa”, while the cast were sent back to their homes in the township. “Where is Mark? In townships? No, hiding somewhere in his expensive house”.

This time, the company seems to be supporting Dornford-May in the spat with Abraham — not much thanks for a man who has sunk R30-million into them during the past four years.

When I met Abraham last week, he said he felt “betrayed”. There’s that excited energy about him that fighting words bring.

“An act of empowerment, affirmation and enabling became an expensive and cancerous growth of entitlement, opportunism and arrogance … I feel most sympathy for the cast. They were misled and manipulated by their management.” But, says Abraham, “some 60 performers have over the last four-and-a-half years of my support become professional … I am enormously proud and admiring of what they have achieved. This should not be forgotten. I regret that none of their productions was performed in their hometown of Khayelitsha.”

‘Not the best contribution’
Keeping a loss-making company of that size going indefinitely to indulge one director’s vision does not seem to be the best contribution that can be made to theatre. It would have been sufficient to fund the Baxter theatre with its many projects for 10 years, something Abraham makes plain he is sensitive to.

In the Cape Times in November, just days before Dornford-May’s latest production — the R600 000 The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists — flopped, he claimed that his company was a victim of a white audience mentality that thinks “that non-white theatre work is somehow inferior”.

That such attitudes exist is correct, but the problem here is much more likely to lie with the actual work. Local critics have never given Dornford-May the critical acclaim he desires. The Cape Times critic, Theresa Smith, described the latest production as “a history lesson”, and Biz Community’s Daphne Cooper left what she called “a worthy lecture” at interval.

As a theatre critic, I have always felt Dornford-May’s directorial vision doesn’t ring true for South African audiences; it is that of an outsider overshadowing the contributions of the actual talents involved. But the British press are won over by the insertion of causes célèbres such as HIV/Aids and what they describe (in the colonial and patronising terms we are accustomed to from them) as “greeted by tribal song and dance”, “an explosion of African colour” and praise for the “raw panache” of the performers.

I think Dornford-May is delusional about his contribution to black theatre. There were black opera singers and productions with large black casts before he arrived. It wasn’t a “radical” idea, as he asserts.

Foreign directors often pose as somehow coming to the rescue of destitute township artists whose “raw” talent they have mentored into international stardom. Dornford-May’s casts have often included professionals trained for several years by others who go unacknowledged when touring overseas as it doesn’t fit the rags-to-riches narrative he wants to tell.

According to the press release issued by the company on November 22, they have secured funding for the coming year for what is now called the Isango Ensemble. Well-placed sources say Dornford-May has found a new patron.

Manim said he would “pursue his career in the theatre as a producer and lighting designer on a freelance basis”. Daniel Galloway has been appointed in his place. If Abraham is able to keep the lights on at the Fugard, he will be making a valuable contribution to the country.

The Fugard, he says, “will honour its iconic location in District Six by finding ways to connect with the remaining members and descendants of this tragically displaced community”.

A season of Fugard plays is being planned to mark his 80th birthday in 2012. An Afrikaans version of his play, The Captain’s Tiger, translated by Antjie Krog, will open on January 19.

The debacle down at the Fugard makes for a sad story out of which none of the key players emerges unscathed. They have only themselves to blame. Hopefully all parties will continue to contribute to our cultural life having learned how vital integrity is at all levels for the artistic enterprise.

Meanwhile the New Space, launched with much goodwill in Long Street in December 2008, has closed. Benefactors who lent their names and made financial contributions to the NewSpace Trust, a public benefit organisation that was to run the theatre in the spirit of the legendary Space Theatre of the 1970s and 1980s, feel duped. The owners, Indigo Properties, have not accounted properly for what went wrong or why they reneged on this promise.

Trevor Manuel has subsequently resigned as patron of the Isango ensemble.

The information in this article was current at 08 Nov 2011

Keywords: theatre

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