(Lan’s article appeared in the Guardian 5/26; Photo: Then, as now, theatre was in every sense political’ …David Lan. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian.)

The theatre director and writer looks back at the spirit of protest that fuelled daring dramas staged in South Africa 50 years ago

I grew up in South Africa during the bleak, violent, seemingly never-ending iron age of apartheid. In 1971, when I was studying acting at Cape Town University, the National Party government built a monolithic 1,500-seat theatre complex in a commanding position near the centre of the city. The Afrikaner Nationalists had an easy rule of thumb by which to distinguish between the value of white people and black people – we have culture and they don’t. The purpose of the monolith, with its elaborate stairways, fancy colonnades and picture windows, was to declare and celebrate this belief. White musicians, actors and dancers were to perform to exclusively white audiences.

Afrikaans theatre was bursting with contradictions. The finest Afrikaans playwright was William Shakespeare. From the 1950s to the 70s, Afrikaans-language productions of the European modernists – Pirandello, Maeterlinck, Strindberg and especially Chekhov – toured to church halls all over the country. Uncle Vanya was a quintessential Afrikaans cultural experience.

Then, as now once again in the UK, the making of theatre was in every sense political. Every aspect was resonant and meaningful – how it was staged, where, by whom, for whom and, if it was subsidised, with what intention and to whose advantage. In the case of these tours to ultra-conservative farming towns of high-water mark creations of the liberal imagination, the state endorsed them and paid for them.

Of the productions scheduled for the new theatre’s opening, a play by the South African Bartho Smit, was banned by the official censor before it even went into rehearsal. The highlight was to be Koning Lear. The theatre’s artistic director, from a distinguished Afrikaans family, had been excited by productions he’d recently seen in Europe. He invited the German Dieter Reible to direct.

Lear was played by Cobus Rossouw, the beloved leading Afrikaans actor of his generation. My memory was that Edgar was played by a black actor. However, checking the cast list, I find the part was played by a white actor – in fact one who had only recently graduated from my own drama school. He certainly intended to convey that Edgar was a black South African. This, together with the bold, expressionist style of the production, was the cause of an ensuing scandal. Did he actually play the part in blackface? It’s unlikely but not impossible. Was he dressed in some version of royal Zulu or Xhosa apparel? No doubt someone will write in and let me know.

When Lear divided his kingdom among his daughters, it was made clear that each was being allocated an apartheid-style “black homeland”, one in the eye for the government’s divide-and-rule politics. In the last scene, with Lear lying dead on the war-torn stage, “black” Edgar climbed with dignity to the top of a revolving staircase – or was it Table Mountain or a giant anthill? The oppressive state had been violently destroyed and he was at long last entering into his kingdom.

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