Bruce takes Amer­ica by storm

Groundswell ’s themes of race and un­em­ploy­ment have drawn big audiences ev­ery­where from Man­hat­tan to Stock­holm and Cape Town

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - GOOD DRAMA - ROBYN CO­HEN

ACROSS be­tween David Mamet and Athol Fu­gard. That is how Ian Bruce’s play, Groundswell, was glow­ingly de­scribed in the New York Times when it was staged at the Acorn The­atre Cen­tre in Man­hat­tan in June/July. In the credit-crunched times, the the­atre was packed – not bad for a con­tem­po­rary drama from South Africa.

New York crit­ics Bar­bara and Scott Siegel wrote: “Bruce’s ad­mirable Groundswell rep­re­sents a new breed of South African the­atre – one that is no longer a call to action, but rather a call for self­ex­am­i­na­tion.”

The three-han­der was first staged in 2005 at the In­ti­mate The­atre on Hid­dingh Cam­pus by New Africa The­atre. Hein­rich Reisen­hofer was in the di­rec­tor’s seat with War­rick Grier, Thando Mthi and Roger Dwyer star­ring as the dis­ap­pointed and dis­con­nected men who want their lives to have happy end­ings. The play toured to the Gra­ham­stown Fes­ti­val, back to Cape Town to the Bax­ter and then to Joburg. The ac­co­lades abounded. It won the 2005 Fleur du Cap awards for best new in­dige­nous play and best di­rec­tor. Roger Dwyer was nom­i­nated for best sup­port­ing ac­tor. Sadly, Dwyer died in April 2007.

Last year the play was pro­duced in Stock­holm by the Royal Swedish Dra­matic The­atre and di­rected by Reisen­hofer, with two Swedish ac­tors and South African ac­tor Mbulelo Groot­boom.

Groundswell ended up in New York as a re­sult of the Gra­ham­stown Fes­ti­val.

“An Amer­i­can called Ben Sny­ders was at the fes­ti­val. He saw Groundswell, ad­mired it and un­der­took to find a US pro­ducer for it,” ex­plains Ian Bruce. “He handed it to New York pro­ducer Orin Wolfe. Orin made a con­nec­tion with the Uni­ver­sity of Columbia and, af­ter two years of his ef­forts, the play was co-pro­duced by Orin and the New Group, res­i­dent com­pany at the Acorn The­atre Cen­tre in Man­hat­tan, a highly rated off-Broad­way the­atre com­pany and venue.”

The ac­tors in the US were Larry Bryg­gman, Souley­mane Sy Sa­vane and David Lands­bury. None of the ac­tors from the orig­i­nal stag­ing reprised their roles in the Big Ap­ple.

“Al­though Orin Wolfe and I dis­cussed it a num­ber of times there was never much chance that a South African di­rec­tor and cast would be able to per­form the play in New York. This is due to the cost and the ne­ces­sity to use mar­ketable, well-known Amer­i­can ac­tors to draw in­vestors and audiences. That is how the busi­ness works, though I might have wished it to be oth­er­wise”, re­flects Bruce.

“I was pleas­antly sur­prised at how well they did, es­pe­cially David Lands­bury, who is An­gela Lands­bury’s nephew. He got the South African ac­cent per­fect. He was as scary as War­wick was (in the orig­i­nal). The Swedish guy also did it very well. I guess it is a char­ac­ter which trans­lates well wher­ever one is.”

Did Bruce ex­pect it to be such a hit – com­mer­cially and crit­i­cally?

“I was sur­prised that it trans­lated so well to an Amer­i­can au­di­ence,but then I was also sur­prised at how deep th­ese is­sues are in Amer­ica – race, em­ploy­ment, or lack of it – are all huge is­sues there now and it is all in the play.”

Racism, en­ti­tle­ment – past and present – are grap­pled with in this multi-lay­ered drama which is set in a guest­house in a coastal town. Every­one is prospect­ing for alluvial di­a­monds and try­ing to make a fast buck. There is a whitey who used to be a po­lice­man in the old south Africa and now has pretty much zilch. When he is not di­a­mond div­ing, he does odd jobs at the guest­house. The black care­taker at the guest­house is sav­ing up his money and ek­ing out his liv­ing. The po­lice­man dan­gles a get-rich scheme in his face. But they need seed money.

A tourist with a 4x4 ar­rives to stay at the guest­house and so the games be­gin to en­tice him into the scheme. He has lost his job to a BEE ap­point­ment. His wife has died in a car crash. His daugh­ter lives over­seas. He is alone.

It is not spec­i­fied where the guest­house is, but it is pretty ob­vi­ous that it is set in Port Nol­loth in Na­maqua­land, says Bruce. He man­aged a guest­house there for three years. “Port Nol­loth is a place where many out­casts go – run­ning away from things. There are ex­po­lice­men, ex-South African mil­i­tary, ex-pris­on­ers – peo­ple who have be­come dis­lo­cated and dis­con­nected as well as a bunch of youngsters who go there to make a for­tune in di­a­monds”.

The ti­tle of the play refers to lines from a TS Eliot poem. And there are the al­lu­sions to the groundswell – phys­i­cal and metaphor­i­cal: “The groundswell is a real is­sue in Port Nol­loth. When there is a storm down the coast – in Cape Town – the swell picks up and this messes up the vis­i­bil­ity for di­a­mond div­ing. It is ac­tu­ally a seaswell but they call it a groundswell.”

Bruce’s so­journ in Port Nol­loth came about af­ter he re­turned from ex­ile in the Nether­lands. He left in 1976 – just be­fore the Soweto ri­ots – as he did not want to fight and de­fend South Africa’s bor­ders. In his 16 or 17 years in Hol­land, he wrote, di­rected and acted in plays; and founded The English Speak­ing The­atre and a South African the­atre in Am­s­ter­dam.

On his re­turn in 1992, he was in­volved with sev­eral ini­tia­tives – work­ing with street chil­dren, run­ning a sur­plus peo­ple project and an en­vi­ron­men­tal project.

Then came his time in Port Nol­loth, where the seeds for Groundswell took root. Af­ter that, in 1998, he be­came di­rec­tor of New Africa The­atre (www.newafricathe­atre.org), which is not be con­fused with Ni­cholas El­len­bo­gen’s The­atre for Africa.

New Africa The­atre was started in 1987 by Mavis Tay­lor. Based in Sy­brand Park, Athlone, it has sev­eral arms – in­clud­ing a drama school which of­fers one-year cer­tifi­cate cour­ses. The school is at present work­ing on de­vel­op­ing a three­year diploma course.

The ven­ture is also kit­ting out the the­atre and has es­tab­lished a the­atre lab­o­ra­tory – a com­pany with res­i­dent per­for mers. New Africa The­atre is also a pro­duc­tion house and was re­spon­si­ble for pro­duc­ing and stag­ing Groundswell in South Africa.

HARD TALK: Play­wright Ian Bruce has pi­o­neered a new theme of self-ex­am­i­na­tion in South African the­atre.

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