The Story of The Space

1/ Genesis


Wilson Dunster and Yvonne Bryceland in ORESTES

The seed from which The Space grew was sown over a few weeks in January/February, 1970 – feel free to correct my dates if I get them wrong anywhere in these blog posts. The Cape Performing Arts Board (CAPAB), utterly thrilled at the extraordinary response to Athol Fugard’s two plays – People are living there and Boesman and Lena, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: Take any members of their company – the whole company if need be – and create a new work over as much time as necessary.

Athol chose Yvonne Bryceland, Val Donald and Wilson Dunster, and vanished into the rehearsal room above the old Labia Theatre. Nine weeks later I was asked to take rehearsal photos. I spent three of the most exciting days of my life – much more time than I was being paid for – in the room with the four of them. Watching Athol work with the three intensely committed actors was a revelation. Not before, or since, have I ever seen a director work at that depth.
The production was causing some consternation in the echelons of CAPAB. There had been no call for a designer for either sets or costumes. There wasn’t even a stage manager.

A week later I was asked to take the production photos. Nothing had changed in the charged atmosphere of the rehearsal room. No lighting, no costumes, seven chairs.

Something had changed outside the rehearsal room, however. Word had got out that the new ‘play’ (an hour-long performance piece with only 200 words), which the management thought was some form of Greek extravaganza, given that it was called Orestes, and had the title character, Clytemnestra, Electra – not to mention a chair called Agamemnon, was not all that it seemed. Now, the whispers said, it segued rather obviously from its Greek roots into a more modern setting on a railway station, where Clytemnestra had morphed into a broken-down old sherry queen, Iris, Electra was now a schizophrenic young woman (drawn from R. D. Laing’s The Divided Self), and Orestes….. Well, Orestes was now a young man who placed a suitcase containing a bomb, which detonated, killing the old woman.

Hadn’t John Harris, a disturbed young man, done exactly the same thing on the Johannesburg Railway Station on July 24, 1964, just six years previously, killing a 77-year old woman and badly injuring her 17-year-old granddaughter, disfiguring her for life – and injuring 22 others. Harris was hanged on April 1, 1965.

Consternation reigned. A Company Manager arrived to tell Athol and his cast that a member of the South African Censor Board had been invited by CAPAB to scrutinize the production the following morning.

After which – even more consternation! The Censor saw nothing wrong with the production.

There was still no set date or venue. Sue and Midge Pike invited them to do a preview at the Cape Town Art Centre in Green Point. It is one of my treasured memories – watching the powers-that-be of CAPAB sitting around the small room, slumped in their chairs, hands covering the bottom part of their faces, looking at the ‘disaster’ happening before them from under eyebrows inclined forward, as though trying not to see…

What they were trying not to see was a piece of theatre that changed my life. Orestes, over the next few months of its short life, as it careered from one small, hastily arranged venue to another, was followed by myself and a rapidly growing band of, well, I expect you could call us apostles, devotees, fanatics.

Performance by performance it forced me, almost subconsciously to re-evaluate my life. It was not a fast process – I am much too slow a thinker for that.

CAPAB tried their damnedest to hide the production. It was first staged for a week in the Union Castle Auditorium in Adderley Street. This was not a theatre venue, mostly it was used by groups such as the Cape Town Film Club. Only about 60 people were accommodated, sitting in a square around the playing space. Its run was sold out in an hour. After much haggling, it was allowed another run in an abandoned cinema in Camps Bay. Back then Camps Bay was not the thriving centre it has become. Many considered it the end of the world. That short run, too, was quickly sold out. CAPAB had no further plans. The Ruth Prowse Centre in Observatory offered another couple of performances. There was one more staged in the cafeteria of the University of Cape Town to a full house of politically-aware students.

From Johannesburg Mannie Manim of the Performing Arts Council of the Transvaal (PACT) asked to import it for a three-week run the following year. I went along for the ride, my frankly rather miniscule intellectuality and political consciousness being given a thorough, brisk mugging by the extraordinary images and metaphors.

In June that year, 1971, Athol and Yvonne were invited to the Royal Court Theatre in London to stage Boesman and Lena. Once again I tagged along.

Sitting in the Open Space – Charles Marowitz’s seminal theatre in Tottenham Court Road – one night, I looked around. 16 lamps up above, seats made out of what seemed to be scaffolding hammered together to form seat and back, covered with some form of thick rubber (still some of the most comfortable seats I have ever encountered in a Fringe venue…). This couldn’t cost much, I reasoned blindly. I had supper with my friend, Garner Thomson, a journalist who had moved to London. He was typically enthusiastic and encouraging.

Yvonne and Athol listened with patience as I expounded my plan, faces cloaked in the sort of attentive sympathy you give your demanding six-year old. I wrote to my mother, my school-friend, Malcolm Roup – now my long-suffering lawyer.

The Grand Plan was that I would move my photographic business to a larger studio space. Once or twice a year I would give it over to Athol and Yvonne to stage Orestes-type productions to about 30 people for a few weeks. Could they start looking for such a space for me?

That was the plan.

I came back to Cape Town in September, enrolled architect Maciek Miszewski – one of life’s great enthusiasts – in The GP. Almost without noticing a rather large Tsunami gathered its forces. Yvonne was aghast. Six-year olds are not supposed to build more than sand castles. Athol disappeared off back to Port Elizabeth.

Inspired by Maciek’s magnificent energy – he would come out with me at the drop of a hat, to walk the streets of Cape Town – we hunted for possibilities, which grew with every new venue we found. He designed three different theatres for three different buildings.

Then photographer, Peter John, mentioned a deserted chrome and steel works in a side street off Long Street. We phoned the landlord, Raymond Sebba – another enthusiast. In late November the rumble of the tsunami was being felt all over the place. Volunteers stopped me in the street. Raymond allowed us to take two floors of the building for a low rental for six months. Jane Raphaely, the great Editor of Fair Lady, suborned a group of what came to be called ‘Brian’s Ladies’ into collecting funds under the umbrella of a new charity – the Foundation for Art and Theatre (FAT – Athol suggested that maybe it should have been the Foundation for Art and Real Theatre…).

We could move in on January 1, 1972.

Three months later we opened with Statements after an arrest under the Immorality Act.

I later, in Britain, discovered that most of my life had been steering me towards my vocation – teaching. When I was first confronted by a group of new acting students I would always say: ‘If you think that theatre is not an essential part of the process of change in a society; if you think that theatre cannot change anything – then you’re sitting in the wrong room with the wrong person. Because I have been changed by theatre at all the important points of my life. And I have watched as theatre changed others, and the society in which we all lived.’

All due to Orestes.

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