From Socialist Voice, October 2010

Theatre

South Africa, September 2010


I visited my two old comrades from our days working together in the Abbey Theatre in the late 1960s and early 70s, namely Brian Collins and John Slemon. John Slemon was general manager of the the Abbey when he left in 1978 to become director of the Baxter Theatre, about to be opened in Cape Town. The Baxter was to become one of only two fully integrated theatres in apartheid South Africa, the other being the Market Theatre in Johannesburg.
     He made a very honourable effort to expose the hypocrisy of that system and in particular in the theatre. He put on an all-black production classic of Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock, which showed the universality of O’Casey’s play. He also put on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with Winston Natsona and John Kani, the two great South African actors, as Vladimir and Estragon, which I saw in the Old Vic in London in the 1980s.
     Yes, John was always a brave and abrasive director, and one of the first recognitions of this was a visit by Nelson Mandela to his theatre when apartheid was dismantled.
     While I was there the three of us went to a production of Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy from Ulysses, performed by a very eminent South African actor—an excellent performance, though I’m not sure that the audience could follow Molly’s and Joyce’s thoughts and emotions. A great night all the same.
     Brian Collins’s father was the scenic painter in the legendary Theatre Royal in Hawkins Street, Dublin—a beautiful 3,500-seat theatre destroyed by Ireland’s savage moronic capitalist developers. What they built in its place has been described as the ugliest building in Dublin.
      Brian started work at fifteen as a scenic painter in the Theatre Royal. He was then asked to join the Abbey Theatre when it was in the Queen’s Theatre in Pearse Street (also destroyed). He also designed hundreds of productions in the Abbey, Peacock, and all the other Dublin theatres.
     It was truly fascinating to talk to Brian about his time in the Theatre Royal. He was telling me about seeing Bob Hope, Danny Kaye, Bill Haley and the Comets, Nat King Cole, Mario Lanza, James Cagney (the only time he ever danced on stage in public was at the Theatre Royal), etc., etc. I was listening to Irish theatrical history—truly brilliant and exceptional.
     My thoughts on South Africa: would I be interested in working there? Not particularly. It’s obvious where power and money still reside. I am sure a few decades hence change will come, but that is for the next two generations. No, Dublin, with all its fecking problems, is still the jewel to treasure and, of course, change.
     Thanks, John, Brian, and Helen.
[RJW]

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