A patient stripped of all but the most rudimentary life support, not only does South African theatre’s heart continue to beat against all odds, but it even, and surprisingly often, jumps out of bed and delights us with the most thrilling surprises.
The brand new Fugard Theatre is one of these. Within a semi-arid performing arts landscape where oases of creativity are sparse, it flowers as a new space promising to grace Cape Town with magnificent blooms.
Over the last weekend (February 12 – 14) on the edge of the old District Six, where Cape Town’s cosmopolitan CBD has for decades crumbled away to a desolate expanse of prime land that was once a bustle of streets and lively cheek-by-jowl dwellings, the theatre emerged from a six-month cocoon of scaffolding.
The new home of the young, award-winning Isango Portobello Company, the Fugard spread its wings on Friday February 12 with a gala opening – hosted by patron Minister Trevor Manuel – of the company’s West End hit The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo, before it strides out with a world premiere on March 19 of The Train Driver, written especially for Isango Portobello by he who has lent his name to the theatre, Athol Fugard himself, who will come over from his residence in California to direct the play in house.
The fact that Cape Town, and South Africa, has a new theatre at all is reason to pop the ‘champers, but the aura surrounding The Fugard adds up to more than the sum of its parts.
Located on the City’s east side in the midst of an arts vanguard that is putting a shine on what until recently was an area where the only people who felt at home were tramps, it is a block from the historical Grand Parade and central station, allowing the company’s 30-odd permanently employed performers to travel directly from their Cape Flats homes to work – and with the public transport system being upgraded patrons might also find this option attractive.
The building it occupies, an historical textile warehouse still bearing the Sacks Futeran & Co. legend, also incorporates the original Caledon Street congregational church hall, seems to have spent years waiting for Isango Portobello to claim it.
The building used to thrum to a hive of textile workers, but has some experience of the performing arts.
Rented from lessors District Six Museum, the Arts and Media Access Centre (formerly the legendary Community Arts Project and Mediaworks) operated its performing arts, visual arts and media classes and activities there from 2003 until its sad demise in 2007.
Thus the pockmarks on the wooden floorboards in what are now the Fugard’s lavish dressing rooms, were created by students who neglected to remove their shoes while practicing township dance moves.
Much of the interior of the old warehouse has been gutted, to create a three-tiered gallery to seat 270 people, while the soaring old church hall has had a floor put in to create what might be the most magnificent 200 square metres of rehearsal space in the country.
Despite the last minute frenzy of workers and cement dust hanging in the air last week, a walk through the premises provides an infusion of optimism and energy for theatre goers and performers alike as the performing arts’ heart monitor registers a healthy new beat.