Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London (****)
Sometimes a production just knocks you for six. This must have happened for many people when The Fall first appeared in the UK at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe festival. The story of the South African student movement for decolonisation, the #RhodesMustFall Movement, written and devised by those involved is a lesson to us all, in politicisation, finding one’s voice, discrimination and much more besides.
But most of all, it is a lesson in theatre. As they write in the foreword to the published text: `Theatre is important. Theatre has the most amazing ability to give people an understanding of what can often be very complex social issues by telling human stories, while at the same time speaking truth to power.’
How I wish that sentence could be emblazoned across the land and sit as a reminder above the heads of our politicians who relegate the Arts and theatre to an after-thought.
Having only now just caught up with the production, it’s not just the political debate encompassing colonialism, feminism, sexuality, institutionalised racism and economics (the issue of fees and loans striking a huge chord here, too) that sweeps you away. It’s the total style and aesthetic of the production, the power and the passionate urgency the whole cast display.
Rooted in their own cultural heritage and tradition, these young actors – all drama graduates – incorporate and combine fantastic verbal and acting skills with a physical richness that is breathtaking.
First of all, the Movement’s aim was to simply pull down the statue of the symbol of colonialism, Cecil Rhodes.
But as such revolutionary movements do, that brought into being far more wide-ranging discussions about strategy and associated developments, the nuts and bolts of wresting power from a still overwhelming white institution.
Where was `black African’ history in their curriculum? where were the black lecturers? why was representation of Africa still being pursued through white novelists of the 19th century – E M Forster and Joseph Conrad. And why were their student fees so high and the system so humiliating in order to obtain student loans or bursaries?
And then the feminism. As with previous revolutionary movements – I think back to anti-Vietnam demos in the US and at my university, Warwick in the late 1960s, and later `second wave’ arguments in the 1980s – the idea of gender issues comes in as secondary.
Some of the most painful, hard-hitting moments of The Fall are the awareness speeches in which the female students call out their male `comrades’ about their unconscious patriarchal attitudes. `So, are you saying now that I can’t express myself naturally?’, says Boitshoko, one of the most militant students. `This is biology, not hyper-masculinity. When we are in spaces like that [the plinth where the statue of Rhodes once stood], testosterone takes over.’
But that’s the beauty of The Fall, its directness and unfolding drama as the students find themselves pitted against the university authorities and the police and subjected to tear gas, stun guns and grenades.
But the saddest thing of all is perhaps the denouement and conclusion. The student protests and activism resulted in Shackville with heavy-handed policing on one side and arrests and student burning of private property on the other. `Is this really where we’ve come to’, says one student, Camilla.
Despite the protests, little had changed. The systems and white power were still in place.
The Fall is a testament to black pain down the centuries and white imperialism articulated so brilliantly by Lorraine Hansberry in Les Blancs 60 years ago.
It doesn’t answer some of the continuing problems of today’s South Africa. But as a theatrical document by a new generation of voices and theatre makers, encouraged and supported by Cape Town’s remarkable Baxter Theatre inspirationally led by Lara Foot, its power is unquestionable.
Produced by Baxter Theatre Centre
At the University of Cape Town
Quawekazi (The Brave One): Tankiso Mamabolo
Zukile-Libalele (The Wounded One): Sihle Mnqwazana
Camilla (The One Who Searches): Ameera Conrad
Kgnthatso (The One Who Discovers): Oarabile Ditsele
Cahya (The Light): Cleo Raatus
Chwaita (The Young One): Zandile Madliwa
Boitshoko (The One Who Perseveres) Sizwesandile Mnisi
Written and devised by: Ameera Conrad, Cleo Raatus, Kgomotso Khuoane, Oarabile Ditsele, Sihle Mnqwazana, Sizwesandile Mnisi, Tankiso Mamabolo and Thando Mangcu
Curated by Ameera Conrad and Thando Mangcu
Facilitated by: Clare Stopford
Lighting Design: Luyanda Somkhence
Executive Producer: Lara Foot
Set Design: Patrick Curtis
Costume Design: Marisa Steenkamp
First staged in Golden Arrow Studio, Baxter Theatre Cape Town, Oct 2016.
Seen at Edinburgh Assembly Fringe, Aug 2017 where it won The Stage Cast Award and The Scotsman Fringe First award.
Shortlisted for Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, 2017
Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, London: Sept 26-Oct 14, 2017
Review published on this site, Oct 10, 2017