When Woza Albert! first appeared in Edinburgh during the Festival Fringe of 1982, apartheid was still firmly in place, and black contemporary South African theatre was largely unknown in Europe. As a major revival of Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon's devised play arrives in Edinburgh in a production by the Market Theatre of Johannesburg, who first presented it more than thirty years ago, the major season of new South African work that follows in its wake suggests things have changed for the better. But have they? Prince Lamla, director of this new production of the trio's satire about what happens when a born again Christ turns up in apartheid-era South Africa is as pertinent as ever, if not more so. “South Africa is a very complex country,” Lamla says. “Post-apartheid, we've experienced so much, and there is change happening very slowly, but it is not always good. The education system is getting messed up and so on, so I never see Woza Albert! as a political story. I see it as a very human story. It's about people trying to survive very simple things.” To put the play's arrival in Britain in context, when Woza Albert! arrived in Edinburgh and London, the UK was in a schizophrenic state, whereby on one hand Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's rabble-rousing initiation of the Falklands War would catapult her to a landslide second term, on the other, a radical alternative protest movement, forged in the 1970s, was very much alive and kicking.
Along with CND and the anti nuclear demonstrations at Greenham Common led by the women's movement, the anti-apartheid movement was a crucial cause of the era's radical left. In some ways, Woza Albert!'s mixture of politics, comedy and a poor theatre aesthetic reflected the UK's burgeoning alternative theatre scene, albeit with a far realer sense of political oppression. The play became a cause celebre, and was filmed and broadcast on national television. “The play changed the whole face of theatre in South Africa,” says Lamla. “To do a play with black actors, and then executing it in such a way that the government couldn't stop it, it had the voice of the entire country. It also had a hand in letting the international community and the entire world know about apartheid.” As well as Woza Albert!, the South African season will feature a second Market Theatre production. And The Girls In Their Sunday Dresses is a piece of black, female absurdist comedy set in a Lesotho rice queue. Another highlight should be Mies Julie, a post-apartheid take on Strindberg's classic play of forbidden love. Where the original usually focusses on the class divide, Baxter Theatre and State Theatre's new production looks at a still taboo inter-racial erotic clash. A 1985 production saw actress Sandra Prinsloo, who appears in Edinburgh in The Sewing Machine, a play about loss and ageing, receive death threats when she took part in the first ever cross-colour kiss onstage when apartheid was still in place. Another one-woman play is Mother To Mother, based on the true story of a mob killing of American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl, in Cape Town during violent uprisings in 1993. If many of these shows demonstrate the legacy of apartheid that remains in South Africa, a revival of Athol Fugard's angry 1972 play, Statements After An Arrest Under The Immorality Act., gets right back to the roots of modern South African theatre. Like Mies Julie, Fugard's piece looks at the all too real dangers of cross-colour love under the apartheid regime. The backdrop to all this is a South African government led by the African National Congress, who were once outlawed as terrorists. Woza Albert!, meanwhile, is a set text in high schools. A political volatility remains in the country, however, and, in Lamla's eyes, at least, Woza Albert! is far from a period piece. “I can see how that might happen,” he says, “but really, not much has changed in South Africa. The challenge with doing the play now was to make it fresh, so people can feel something. Woza Albert! isn't just a play about South Africa. It is a global play. If you look at some of the things going on in Syria and elsewhere, it’s easy to see how relevant it is to the rest of the world.”
Even with his claims for Woza Albert!'s universality, Lamla acknowledges that it might still strike a chord close to home, where more grassroots artistic developments are ongoing beyond what has now become the mainstream.
“In South Africa, it feels sometimes like something is missing,” Lamla says, “but there are new plays that are coming out of the country, and some of the most important of them are coming out of community developments. That is where the future of South African theatre will develop out of, and that is what is so exciting here right now.” Woza Albert!, Assembly Hall, 2-27, 4pm www.assemblyfestival.com
The Herald, August 14th 2012