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Down memory lane – a tribute to The Fugard Theatre

By Lore Watterson

The shock announcement that The Fugard Theatre is closing its doors permanently was like receiving the death notice of a very close friend, someone who had been part of one’s life since their birth and one who will leave a great void. Covid-19 had found another victim.

Fugard Theatre

Creative Feel loved this iconic theatre from the beginning, when in 2010 Athol Fugard himself officially opened the doors to a most magic performance venue in Cape Town’s District Six. We have been part of this colourful and exciting journey ever since and have been proud of our collaboration during the past decade, sharing cover stories, interviews, in-depth features and, of course, reviews with our readers.
     The Fugard Theatre is part of five historic warehouse buildings, situated on half a city block bounded by Buitenkant, Caledon and Harrington Streets in District Six, Cape Town. These are now owned by the District Six Museum. The building has a long history as a textile and soft goods supplier, Sacks Futeran & Co and was the workplace for many generations of seamstresses and tailors from District Six.

Fugard 86‘ was celebrated at The Fugard and featured John Kani on the cover of Creative Feel’s May 2018 issue

     The five interconnected buildings are a combination of nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture with a portion of an old gothic style church at its centre. The actual construction of the 320 seater theatre was underwritten by its founding producer Eric Abraham, who continued to underwrite the operational costs until the actual closure which happened this March. The theatre has now been handed back to the owner of the freehold of the building – the board of The District Six Museum – as a working theatre and Eric Abraham has expressed the hope that they will be able to use it for the benefit of the Museum and the District Six community.
     When it opened in early 2010, it was aptly named in honour of Athol Fugard, our most internationally acclaimed playwright. He created many plays with a myriad of characters that reflected and projected the complexity of the South African landscape. He made his audiences laugh and cry as he told the stories of South Africa and its difficulties, and created  a world that reflected on humanity and the past, while holding on to a unified and hopeful outlook for the future. This is a vision that The Fugard Theatre contributed extensively to with a unique line-up of performances during its 10 years of productions.
     A performance of their prestigious Globes de Cristal Award-winning production of The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo by the Isango Portobello Theatre Company opened The Fugard Theatre in February 2010. It was the first of many magic evenings that fully justified a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town, just to attend a performance at The Fugard Theatre.

West Side Story‘ showed at The Fugard and featured on the cover of Creative Feel’s Dec 2016 / Jan 2017 issue

     Shortly after its opening The Fugard hosted the world première of Athol Fugard’s new play The Train Driver, directed by himself. At the same time he made himself available for a Creative Feel magazine interview, to talk about his work, his namesake theatre and his general views about life in South Africa after his return from America. Years later his Road to Mecca was another memorable performance at The Fugard.
     Then there was the Sean Mathias’ outstanding production of Waiting for Godot starring Sir Ian McKellen, Roger Rees, Matthew Kelly, and Brendan O’Hea. That production had toured the world and had its final performances at The Fugard.
     There were too many shows to mention but it was this mixture of great, diverse South African plays and international ‘hits’ that made The Fugard so wonderful, and of course there was the music, too – from Abdullah Ibrahim’s solo piano programme, to dim lights when the audience grew quiet and the stage in Cape Town was transformed into 1920’s Brooklyn as Fanny Brice belted out I’m The Greatest Star to resounding applause, for Funny Girl at The Fugard Theatre.
     In addition, the company produced wonderful large-scale works like West Side Story and King Kong. These were too large for the intimate ambience of The Fugard and were staged at the neighbouring Artscape Theatre before going on tour.

King Kong‘ showed at The Fugard and featured on the cover of Creative Feel’s Sept 2017 issue

     King Kong, in particular, was a remarkable production when fifty-eight years after it was first staged in 1959, it came to life at The Fugard once again. The iconic status of the play and the historical memory it holds, made the task of bringing it back to SA stages both complex and challenging. Producing what was an incredible example of South African cultural heritage and which had been so influential in the shaping of post-war R&B and jazz music around the world presented a real challenge. Securing the rights alone, which were spread among many of the collaborators associated with the production, had taken Fugard Theatre producer Eric Abraham 20 years.
     And then there was the The Bioscope that presented screenings of the world’s best recorded live theatre, opera, and ballet productions to be enjoyed from the comfort of a Fugard Theatre seat and on The Fugard’s full-size, high-definition cinema screen with a 7.1 dolby digital surround sound system. Productions staged by companies such as the National Theatre, Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, Bolshoi Ballet and Young Vic were presented, providing the audience with the best of international theatre.
     Creative Feel’s last very special collaboration with The Fugard was when Eric Abraham presented The Fugard Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) co-production, John Kani’s internationally acclaimed Kunene and the King, which reunited the great team of director Janice Honeyman with writer actor, activist and playwright, the great John Kani, performing opposite Antony Sher and with lighting by Mannie Manim.

Kunene and the King‘ showed at The Fugard and featured on the cover of Creative Feel’s April 2019 issue

     This was the last Creative Feel Cover Story about The Fugard. Again, it involved interviews and of course a trip for a special performance at The Fugard, just to see the joint production between the RSC and Cape Town’s Fugard Theatre. According to The Guardian’s review ‘It contained two great performances. Sher, shuffling round the stage in rubberised slippers and furtively snatching bottles of forbidden liquor from every conceivable hiding place, captured all of the old actor’s testiness, insecurity and his Lear-like moral awakening. Kani was equally magnificent in showing how Kunene’s dignified forbearance, even when he has a pair of soiled underpants hurled in his face, conceals a deep anger at the cruelty and injustice created by apartheid and at the persistent inequalities in South African life’. The play offers a rich portrait of a very human relationship in a distorted society. This is the kind of theatre we would not have seen without The Fugard and which we will miss sorely.
     When The Fugard announced last year that it was closing its doors for some time to fight the Covid-19 pandemic there was a strong reaction. Writer Nadia Davids tweeted on July 16 2020, about how she is holding tight to the belief that one day the doors will open again, the audience will shuffle in, take their seats, the lights will dim and in the gathering dark, the stage will brighten and the stories will begin. Unfortunately fate has taken another turn and produced another victim of the pandemic.
     To all at The Fugard, we thank you for these special memories and for sharing your vision of what theatre can be in South Africa!

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