Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Roger Mortimer: My Children! My Africa!

By | Published on Thursday 23 April 2015

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A new production of South African playwright Athol Fugard’s ‘My Children! My Africa!’ heads to Tristan Bates Theatre next week. Fugard, widely regarded as one of South Africa’s greatest writers, is well known for his political plays tackling the issues of apartheid.

The show comes courtesy director Roger Mortimer via his production company Two Sheds, which recently produced acclaimed runs of Torben Betts’ play ‘Muswell Hill’. I sent some questions over to Roger, to discover more about the play, and his motivation for staging it.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about ‘My Children! My Africa!’? What happens in the play?
RM: ‘My Children! My Africa!’ is set in South Africa, during the fourth decade of apartheid. It’s about two opposing forces struggling for the soul of a young, brilliant black man, Thami Mbikwana. His teacher, Mr M, thinks that the way forward is to encourage co-operation “across the colour line”, showing the country that another way is possible. But Thami’s generation feel that merely waiting for white South Africa to wake up has achieved nothing, and he has begun to listen to angrier voices. Into this mix is thrown Isabel, a wide-eyed white schoolgirl who has come to take part in a debate in a township school.

CM: The play is set in South Africa during apartheid. How does it approach the topic, and what themes does it address?
RM: Fugard’s genius is that he doesn’t do the predictable thing of setting the white point of view against the black, but looks at two opposing forces within black South Africa – the urbane, philosophical Mr M and the young firebrand Thami, though he is far too good a writer simply to make one of them a mouthpiece for his own views and the other a straw man to knock down – both are profoundly human. Isabel’s role in the drama is that she becomes more conscious of the whole society she lives in, rather than just the narrow section of it she could so easily have been limited to.

CM: The play hasn’t been staged professionally in the UK since 1990. Do you think it still has the same relevance and resonance for today’s audiences, given the end of apartheid?
RM: Although apartheid is officially over, the enormous economic disparity it created, and power structures it put in place, didn’t disappear overnight. Over the past few weeks, there have been student protests at Cape Town University over the continued presence of statues of the imperialist and white supremacist Cecil Rhodes. Many seem to feel that apartheid still exists de facto if not de jure, and like Thami are feeling that the old solutions and calls for gradual change are no longer enough.

In any case, the play has a resonance far beyond its original setting. It speaks to any people who are oppressed in their own land, and wherever two generations clash about the best way to fight back.

CM: The play obviously has an anti-apartheid stance. How instrumental do you think theatre can be in effecting social change?
RM: I think theatre, especially intimate theatre like this, is the most powerful way simply to show people what somebody else’s life is like. In a sense the audience is in the same situation as Isabel, coming to the piece perhaps thinking they know about apartheid but coming to understand that the reality is far worse than they imagined. One only need look at how the apartheid regime treated Fugard and his collaborators to realise how terrified they were of the damage his work could do them. Oppressive regimes are always threatened by art that tells the truth.

CM: What made you decide to stage the play? Why were you attracted to this particular piece of Athol Fugard’s work?
RM: Fugard manages to tell the story of a whole country in these three characters. As I mentioned before, he avoids the simple polemic of making characters nothing more than mouthpieces for opinions, instead giving us three rounded human beings trying to cope with a situation none of them asked to be born into. As he makes very clear, Isabel’s life is as much in danger of being wasted by what he calls “this country’s lunacy” as Thami’s, and it’s surely significant that she was originally played by Fugard’s daughter Lise. In a sense, she undergoes the same journey we see Fugard himself take in ‘”Master Harold”… and the Boys’, that painful glimpse into his own teenage years.

CM: For those who aren’t aware of his work, can you tell us a bit about the playwright?
RM: A South African playwright of mixed Afrikaner and English descent, Athol Fugard has always been one of the clarion voices telling the world the truth about apartheid, often working in collaboration with black South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona. His most famous works include ‘The Island’ (about two political prisoners on Robben Island), ‘Siswe Banzi is Dead’ (about the notorious passbook system that governed every aspect of black South Africans’ lives) and the aforementioned ‘”Master Harold”… and the Boys’ (about his political coming of age, when he saw the truth of the society he lived in for the first time).

CM: Tell us about your company Two Sheds. What are its ethos and aims? And how did it get its name?!
RM: Two Sheds seeks to bring innovative performances of contemporary and classic theatre to affordable venues all over London and beyond, encouraging a diverse audience and giving artists a platform to showcase their talents. The name comes from a Monty Python sketch about a composer, Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson, who’s annoyed by interviewers constantly asking him about his nickname instead of his music. Though in fact I do have two sheds, in which props are stored between shows, so you could say the name has rather caught up with me!

CM: What are your plans for the near and distant future…? Any new projects upcoming?
RM: Also on a South African theme, we will be staging Reza de Wet’s remarkable play ‘African Gothic’ at the Park Theatre in December 2015 to January 2016.

‘My Children! My Africa!’ is on at Tristan Bates Theatre from 28 Apr until 16 May. See the venue website here for more info and to book.

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