Hull Truck Theatre’s artistic director Mark Babych and Jill Adamson, director of engagement and learning, are part of a group sent from the UK by The Swallows Partnership to promote artistic exchange between the North East of England and the Eastern Cape of South Africa, meeting with leaders and artists across the cultural sector. It’s an important time for the theatre to be forging these relationships in the lead-up to Hull City of Culture 2017 and the trip provides a great opportunity to research cultural parallels for the Freedom Season (July-September 2017). But the trip has personal resonance for Babych in particular. The apartheid-era play The Island by Athol Fugard sparked his interest in theatre directing and he has always wanted to visit the country that inspired it. On the last day of the trip he reflects on his time in South Africa.
It’s our last day in South Africa after 16 days of absorbing, inspiring and often moving encounters with people, places and latterly performances.
I’ve spent the last nine days at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, seeing shows, having meetings, attending seminars and debates, and getting to know more about this extraordinary country through the lens of its artistic and cultural landscape.
On the first Saturday of the festival we took a trip out through the rural areas to Hamburg on the Indian Ocean coast to see the Emthonjeni Arts retreat and Keiskamma Trust. I was shown some wonderful artworks, based on Matthias Grunewald’s altar pieces depicting Christ at the crucifixion, made by local women – except this tapestry that folds out in different layers of extraordinary scenes depicts the pain, suffering and hope of a community affected by HIV and Aids. It was terribly moving as we learnt of the history behind the pieces and the story of those who survived and those who sadly passed away.
Despite repeated attempts by The Swallows Partnership to work with the local authorities to create a lasting and sustainable business plan, these wonderful facilities lie empty for the most part. It’s all very heartbreaking and you can see the frustration on the faces of the artists who work here, their voices swelling with emotion as all this wonderful talent and the beautiful surroundings are throttled by bureaucracy and inefficiency. With the right investment, these facilities could be a world class centre for artists to make and create extraordinary work. How wonderful to return here some day and see the vision flourish.
The difficulties for artists working in South Africa and in particular the Eastern Cape were highlighted even more when we attended an open space meeting between UK and SA artists. Despite the lack of networks and proper sustainable infrastructure for actually making work, there is a distinctiveness to the culture that has grown up. Our colleague Gcobani reflected that the only good thing to have come out of the cultural boycott during the apartheid years is that it hasn’t been influenced by Europe. What they do have is hugely valued, which makes me wonder how much we take for granted in the UK. Despite our funding challenges, we face nothing compared to here.
The Swallows Partnership is a very inspiring organisation that has sought cultural connection and exchange between the Eastern Cape, the founding place of radical politics in SA – it’s here that the ANC has its origins – and the North East of England, the bedrock of the Labour movement. Its work is based on a very deep belief in cultural interchange and the need for this to be deep-rooted in proper knowledge of people’s places and a feeling for their history. And that takes investment of time, money, passion, commitment and political will.
The Swallows Partnership is at a crossroads in its development as it seeks to understand how best to continue the groundwork that has been done thus far in developing the infrastructure out here in the Eastern Cape. It remains to be seen how this pans out but the huge amount of learning we have done here in just over two weeks that we will take back into our own practice in the UK has been invaluable. We’ve established new relationships between artists and makers and those entrusted with developing the future for their towns and cities, and we have seen the dangers of a lack of real investment and resilient, sustainable partnerships for work of excellence to flourish. And yet, some of the work we have seen has been extraordinary.
Festival highlights for me include the Tumbuka Dance Company and Vuyani Dance Theatre – jaw-dropping physicality, lung-busting stamina and exquisite use of space. Market Theatre Lab is the future of young South African theatre making under the wing of the world famous “theatre of struggle”. And there was biting satire from Pieter-Dirk Uys (“apart hate, apart love”) and Big Bad Woolf’s show Three Blind Mice.
But the last word remains for two of my favourite shows from the belly of South Africa’s troubled history. The first is from an unexpected source in an unexpected location – a 20 minute extract of a show charting the history of the women’s struggle through apartheid and beyond. It has gut-wrenchingly powerful vocals attacked with furious physicality and ensemble work in a school hall by the wonderful, untrained (how is this possible?) Alexandra Youth in Action ensemble. Wow! Simply wow! The best 20 minutes I’ve ever spent watching a performance. It took us all completely by surprise and seared deep into our souls so much so that we are still thinking about it today. I hope we will see you again someday.
And lastly, Woza! Albert – a play that imagines what would have happened if the second coming of Christ had happened in South Africa during the terrible years of the 1980s. As with all those plays that emerged during the struggle, it is a wonderful blend of satirical comedy, humour, politics and pain. There’s a wonderful moment at the end when all the heroes of the struggle are asked to rise up again like Lazarus – Woza! Albert, Woza! Stephen Biko. The best is left until last – Woza! Nelson.
These last 16 days have been an enormous privilege for me. I’ve come to know a little more about a place that was the root of my own political beliefs and which began my love affair with theatre. Now we have begun our friendship let us now see what we can both achieve together.
Until we meet again…
Nkosi Sikelel i’Afrika
Read more blogs from Hull Truck Theatre’s South African exchange here.