A Tale Of Two Trinchados

31 May

There exists a great divide, beyond mere geography, between theater in Cape Town and theater in Johannesburg. Both cities conform to the same theatrical construction, so the difference does not lie in the obvious practicalities of theater-making. The two competing cities possess theaters of varying degrees of historical success and countless works from a variety of authors have been staged within the respective auditoriums. The fact that both cities produce and lure audiences to witness live performances from trained professionals and share a country and its people would make it seem as if the difference between the two could not be all that different. And yet, a profound number of theater practitioners and audiences would agree that a difference exists and that this difference is related to the philosophy and the type of work being done.

Without venturing too far into the validity and quality of the two cities’ plays, the question has to be asked as to whether the one is better than the other.

Johannesburg has a tradition of political theater (read: struggle theater) and this tradition continues for the most part at venues like The Market Theater, with revivals of “Siswe Banzi Is Dead” and “Woza Albert” being staged alongside modern struggle plays like “Truth in Translation.” Cape Town, although dabbling in struggle-centric productions and PC profundity on occasion, offers one more of a chance to experience, through theater, political viewpoints that are either foreign or, dare I say it, unpopular. This does not make Cape Town theater better in that regard as one can see from the various colonialist productions whose message seem to be that the troubles of the British Empire or the New World journey towards a (American) dream are oh-so-very-important to us, the conquered (by the colonialists of the empire or the capitalist Yankees.) The question of which city’s theater is most politicized becomes a Red Herring that confuses the plot as to whether any of this work is actually any good, which it very often isn’t.

Another point likely to be made by those in the know, is that Johannesburg is the home of the musical and that no straight, non-musical play with the ability to throw its size around can have a life beyond the two week run the producers have paid for up front. This seems to indicate that a straight, non-musical play will have a better chance at a prolonged life in Cape Town. This, dear reader, is false… in a way. The point is not that a play without song and dance numbers, but with size on its side, can do better in Cape Town than Johannesburg, but that a play like that would be booked in Cape Town at all. What is true in Jozi is true in the Mother City: if the play is not an immense crowd pleaser, which musicals often are, then there is very little hope of it being performed in either city. There are various factors that can guarantee a straight play (of appropriate size or financial backing) some success and it has nothing to do with the quality of work on display. It should feature a star, e.g. Anthony Sher and John Kani in “The Tempest”, a disastrous, infuriatingly lazy production, or it should bring with it some history of excellence, e.g. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, which turned out to be a showcase for almost-has-been stars and an exercise in directorial flimsiness. Both shows, however, were successful in reasonable, South African terms. But for all that supposed pedigree, a musical would’ve sufficed. At least it would have been done well – again, by South African standards. Those shows were booked in Cape Town for the same reason “Rent” started its run in Johannesburg: to make money from the pre-conceived notions of the theater world; big musicals start in Johannesburg, big straight plays start in Cape Town.

Small plays, on the other hand, suffer rape and pillage at the hands of both cities. It is true, smaller plays and new work has a better chance of success in Cape Town. That can’t be argued. The sheer number of smaller productions and new plays in Cape Town outweigh Johannesburg’s. Cape Town has more of a theater going populace than Johannesburg because there simply are more small theaters (I do not count cabaret bars, stand-up comedy venues or band stands) and they are affordable. The average price of admission is between R50 and R100 for a small theater, and it always depends on whether well-known actors/directors/writers are involved. A R50 ticket in Johannesburg is almost unheard of, and if you do find a play that cheap, chances are it will reflect the price in the work. That does not mean that these small or new productions that litter Cape Town’s theater world are necessarily going anywhere. They are almost never accepted by any of the big theaters, they never make money (those damn cheap tickets!) and the only way they will make progress in this country is if they are award-friendly, accessible, complacent, PC or preachy works. It is theater as a franchise wannabe restaurant; just another “Spur” in the making.

The difference between Cape Town theater and Johannesburg theater is comparable to the two cities’ approach to a Portuguese dish known as Trinchado. The basics of the dish are the same in both cities: a saucy, meat dish containing cubes of beef fillet in a spicy, red wine sauce. The difference lies in the viscosity of the sauce. In Cape Town it is thin and red, like a consommé, and in Johannesburg it is creamy and thick with a slight orange tinge. Those who frequent Diaz Tavern in Cape Town will swear that the Trinchado they serve there is the best, while those who eat at Nuno’s in Melville, Johannesburg will testify that theirs is better. I have tried both, and I too have a favorite just as I have a favorite theater community. But to argue about it would be moot. It’s all about taste, experience and one’s enjoyment of the moment. Yes, the recipes differ, but the dish remains the same.

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