It isn’t often that theatre stops you in your tracks, particularly when it’s something like Magic Flute, which admittedly I’ve seen performed umpteen times in various guises but never to quite the aplomb with which it was being performed at the new Fugard Theatre in Cape Town (the last performance is on Saturday 6 March!)
And if you haven’t heard about the Fugard Theatre, named in honour of Athol Fugard, one of our country’s most iconic theatre influences, it’s because it has only just opened on the corner of Caledon and Harrington Streets in District Six, with its entrance off Buitenkant Street – in the gorgeous restored Sacks Futeran building with a roof terrace that has to-die-for views over Cape Town’s city (you should see the rehearsal rooms on the second floor – anyone who has performed in theatre would drool) …
And if you think the front looks like an old Gothic-style church, it is. It uses the original congregational church hall as its Caledon Street entrance. The building transformed two warehouse spaces, and the original decommissioned church hall, into the theatre, rehearsal studio, foyer space, dressing rooms and offices. The building was originally a textile and soft goods supplier and used for generations by District Six seamstresses and tailors and still sports the original Saks Futeran & Co. legend.
The 12th of February arrived and left with little dent on the horizon, despite an opening night’s performance that included the likes of Athol Fugard himself, Trevor Manuel (the new theatre’s patron), a plethora of cabinet ministers, and my personal favourite, the actor Alan Rickman (whilst his most famous role might have been Professor Snape in the Harry Potter series, I’ve loved him in the likes of Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply and other films like Dogma).
But this blog isn’t about Alan Rickman. It’s about a new theatre for Cape Town at a time that theatre struggles to put bums on seats. It’s a theatre that is also home to the Isango Portobello Company, the company who up until now have been rehearsing in Athlone and whom we best remember for their film production of U-Carmen Ekhayelitsha. They’re a Cape Town based theatre company regarded as the largest black theatre company in the world, with a number of their members drawn from the townships around the city. A company that is shaping theatre, not only in South Africa, but throughout the world.
The company set off the opening of the Fugard Theatre with a run of The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo, a production that not only won the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival for their sell-out at the Young Vic and Duke of York’s run in 2008, but then went on to play in the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and the Luxor Theatre in Rotterdam. They’ve specialised in re-imagining classics with an African setting, and creating new work that is relevant to South Africa.
The opening season at the new Fugard Theatre also includes performances of of Isango Portobello’s The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso, and the world premier of Athol Fugard’s newest play The Train Driver, which the 78 year old has also directed, and is due to grace the stage from March 19th.
If this isn’t a season about which to get excited, then I don’t know what will excite South African audiences. As one of my friends was heard to comment: ‘where else could one pull off Magic Flute in which Papageno’s flute solo is played on a trumpet, and get away with it to such a degree that it actually worked?’ Not only is the flute usurped but Mozart’s score has been transposed for an orchestra of marimbas.
And the Fugard Theatre is pretty intimate as well. It’s only a 270 seater in the old warehouse where much of it has been gutted allowing for gorgeous acoustics. By all accounts, the opening season of Flute was chock-a-block, and the theatre functions on a first-come-first-served basis so that, if you’re late, you end up on a line of bar stools along what would have been boxes in days of old, on the second and third floor balconies of the theatre. But all’s fair in love and theatre, as the cost of the seats is more than reasonable. Just take this as a warning to get there early, if you want a good seat. And don’t expect the usual before curtain up milling that usually takes place in a theatre – everyone’s already got their bum on a space, and you’ll have to do your ‘who’s here’ craning from your seat.
The theatre is bang in the centre of what is known as Cape Town’s east side, a part of town that is also home to the City Hall, District Six Museum, and a collection of unusual local clubs and restaurants, bookshops and an odd assortment of clothing factory shops.
Now a troupe of theatre performers, who finally have a performance venue in their home town, find themselves but a block away from Grand Parade and central station, making many of their journeys back to the townships pretty easy. And it’s an option for theatre goers too.
To book tickets for the opening season at The Fugard, phone the box office on 021 461 4554.