Stories are never on pause, says artistic director of the Market Theatre, James Ngcobo, as he reveals its latest theatrical celebration, Chilling with the Bard: A Shakespeare Season. And for those of us trying to keep track of Ngcobo’s creative juices, it’s been a sweet ride as he tries to navigate the Covid-19 curveball that has almost brought the world to a standstill.
I knew the creatives would find different ways to market their stories even when their winning ticket — live theatre — was cancelled, and will probably be prohibited for the rest of the year. From the start of the first lockdown, Ngcobo knew he had to find ways to keep theatre going; to embrace, rather than defy, lockdown.
“I commissioned 10 new works, all of which are available on our social-media platforms, and some of which will be reworked next year to stage live,” he says.
Then he turned to a handful of young actors to deliver monologues reflecting on their world and the life we are inhabiting now.
“Theatre will rise again,” Ngcobo says; in the meantime, it has given him the opportunity to showcase some performers who are Market regulars, as well as others he has always hoped to put on stage. “Covid hasn’t stifled our passion, just moved it into another space.”
He also connected with dancers like Vincent Mantsoe in Paris; writers like Napo Masheane were given a scenario and asked to write something; others were asked to tell their own stories; and an international jazz hook-up was also made. Ngcobo had to find ways to woo audiences to watch and is thrilled by the response — with audience numbers rising constantly as all the work can be easily accessed for free.
Many of these plays will also be staged at the Market when live performances are given the go-ahead. “I envision two weekends of short plays; for example, where audiences move around from one 20-minute play to another,” he says. For Ngcobo, it is important to stage new work and not just look at what they had available.
This latest season is based on speeches from some of Shakespeare’s iconic plays, mostly written for male characters. They have been carefully picked and partnered with the perfect actresses, according to Ngcobo.
These past few months and those ahead have been all about finding ways to work: not only for audiences, but also for actors. Reversing the roles in this Shakespeare season, Ngcobo hoped to excite both parties with roles that were written more than 400 years ago, but are still relevant today.
In an Oprah Masterclass podcast with Maya Angelou, relevance is underlined in the following musings: “I read Shakespeare,” Angelou says, speaking of herself at a very young age, about 12 years old. “I memorised 50 sonnets or something. But I read one sonnet that made me think, Shakespeare must be a black girl from the South who may have been molested. How could he know?”
And then she recites: “In disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes/ I all alone beweep my outcast state/ And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries/ And look upon myself and curse my fate.
“Shakespeare knew what it was to be raped and scorned, so, of course, I thought he was a black girl, barefoot in the South. It spoke to me,” she says. And who can argue that.
“I think it’s important that we’re not locked in by the myopia of gender and race,” Ngcobo says, an attitude that world theatre has embraced as audiences become more adventurous in their viewing choices.
“It is really a marvel that almost 400 years after he wrote this great literature, we are still intrigued and engulfed in this magnificent work of brilliance. Shakespeare poured his heart and imagination into these wondrous stories that have been acclaimed, enjoyed and staged over the years,” Ngcobo says.
Running through his options, he talks about his choices for the season: 11 of Mzansi’s finest actresses take on performing one-hander plays. “I’m hoping that this amazing combination of talent will breathe new life to these ancient, yet living texts,” Ngcobo says.
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