The quirky, fun, and vibrant Happy New Year (A Play With Songs) is currently onstage at the Fugard Theatre’s intimate Studio until 23 March 2019, with great performances by Bianca Flanders and Dean Balie under the direction of internationally renowned director, Nicolas Kent. We had the great opportunity to ask Kent some questions about his style of theatre and how it translates to this latest production.
Kent shares that he went into theatre as a young person with the vision ‘to help change things, and theatre seemed a good way to do that'. ‘I have always loved the idea that a play can be presented and someone’s life can take another direction because of it’. Not only does Kent believe that theatre can change lives, he has actually witnessed that in reality:
‘Pieter-Dirk Uys presented one of his plays about AIDS at The Tricycle. There were two doctors in the audience who were about to go on holiday to France. After the play, they decided to cancel their trip and instead come to South Africa to join the efforts to teach AIDS awareness in local communities. There are many of these kinds of stories.'
With that awareness of the power of theatre, Kent is best known for his documentary (verbatim) theatre pieces, such as The Colour of Justice, Nuremberg and All The Presidents Men. He frequently places the spotlight on injustices —using theatre as a social commentary tool.
‘I think perhaps it’s because theatre is a communal experience, sitting together in a dark room’, Kent contextualises. ‘You watch something with other people and you go through a number of emotions. It may polarise different sections of the audience, but in verbatim theatre, that becomes debate, and also it quite often questions those in power. I think in an extraordinary way, any art form can sometimes be more effective than the news.’
For Kent the impact of theatre as an art form is not just found in communal visual experiences and debate, but also in what the culmination of those elements bring about: ‘What theatre does is put us in someone else’s shoes and in doing so, it creates empathy for them. The conflict created on stage between the questioner and the accused can be revealing, emotionally disturbing, and illuminating at the same time.’
With an understanding of theatre as more than an entertainment tool, but rather a perspective shifting platform, it is then no surprise that Happy New Year is not Kent’s first association with South African theatre —a country rich in the tradition of issue and revolutionary theatre. Kent brought some of David Kramer's productions to the UK, and also had ties with the 1986 staging of Barney Simon's Born in the RSA at the Market Theatre in very hostile circumstances. He even produced Born in the RSA for Channel 4 in the U.K. 'But,' Kent qualifies, that 'play was already a fully completed piece of theatre’. What makes his involvement in Happy New Year such an exciting moment in his illustrious career is that it is the first time that he is actually directing on South African soil.
With such a strong link to robust and politically moving pieces, one wonders: Why choose a rom-com like Happy New Year to make a directorial debut in South Africa? ‘I think there is room for all sorts of different theatre’, Kent responds. ‘Happy New Year (A Play With Songs) is a very funny love story. People will empathise with the characters. It’s actually a three-hander, we have a highly-strung lawyer, a petty criminal, and Cape Town as the third character —the play is an ode to the city, one I have come to love since my association with it.’
With Cape Town magnificently so featured through the illustrations of Lucie de Moyencourt, alongside Balie and Flanders, Happy New Year is a beautifully intimate play. However, although intimate, the production is anything but small in style, tone, and character. In fact, it is exactly because of the unpretentious intimate character of an authentic local adaption that this play has such a big impact on audiences.
‘When talking with David Kramer about possible projects to bring to South Africa, I thought of Midsummer, but we both knew it would not work to take this extraordinarily rich play and perform it in Cape Town with two white actors playing Scots,’ Kent shares the reasoning that informed the play's transformation. ‘This adaptation, Happy New Year, is also tremendous fun, and it celebrates how people CAN change their lives, be optimistic, and not be trapped into making the same mistakes of their past.’
Tackling an adaptation —even with the best and happiest of intentions— brings with it the risk that a production can lean more towards using the original play simply as inspirations, while creating something altogether different, rather than respecting the tone and spirit of the original text within a different time or setting. Kent and David Kramer (responsible for the adaption) have however done it right! They have managed to find the magic middle ground between the something old of Midsummer and the something new in Happy New Year to present a well-constructed and truly special adaption.
‘Both take place on a significant day of the year —the heat of Midsummer in Edinburgh and with Happy New Year, the even hotter heat of New Year’s Eve,’ Kent elaborates. ‘David Kramer has been very true to the original, but has transported the action from Edinburgh to Cape Town and transposed the people who live there from Scots to Capetonians. He has used the same music, but adapted it with local rhythms. The play does have things to say to the people of Cape Town and so it would have been a shame to try and do that with the original including Scottish accents.’
Happy New Year then reflects Kent’s theatre belief that productions should not only carry the message of a show to the broader public, but also bring to stage stories that engage with the local audience. For Kent this does not mean that every play has to be political, rooted in the past, or address a current injustice.
‘From what I understand of theatre in Cape Town, a lot of new plays do deal with injustices and difficulties of the past. Happy New Year [rather] explores people and their lives, but in a funny and moving way. It is not political. However, just because it’s not hard-hitting doesn’t mean its themes are not important, as it emphasises the possibilities in all of us.’
Sometimes simply telling stories about people within a local context is enough to make a bold statement. When asked how it has been to take on this bold love story's journey with the Happy New Year creative team and cast, it is with great excitement that Kent proclaims, ‘It’s been terrific!’. ‘Dean and Bianca are incredibly talented. It hasn’t hurt that they're a couple so the rom-com aspect has been quite easy to tackle. I have known David Kramer for so many years, it is a pleasure working with him —he cast the production, and I trusted him implicitly with those choices.’
Whenever Kramer is involved in a show, one expects some great toe-tapping music —usually in the form of a musical— and with the magical vocal harmonies of Balie and Flanders onstage in this production, one has to ask: What makes Midsummer/Happy New Year ‘a play with songs’, rather than an intimate musical production? Kent explains that ‘it’s quite Brechtian in that the songs do not move the story along, but are a counterpoint to the mood of the scene. Happy New Year is not a musical –as the title says, it's a play, and entertainment, with songs.’
The story itself then remains the central focus, with the music tapping into the spirit and tone of the narrative more than being a crucial part of the narrative. Within this story so being told, Kent shares that his favourite moment is not actually a line sung or unsung ‘by one of the characters, but by a parking payment machine —CHANGE IS POSSIBLE’. ‘It is a key theme of the play, and I will never pay for my parking and look at a machine like that in the same way again!’
The Happy New Year theme is the perfect echo of the way Kent looks at theatre: ‘If used well, theatre can be a force for good in our lives. It can also be a wonderful diversion of the hardships in the world. It is sad that theatre worldwide has become so expensive and I wish it could be even more accessible. Happy New Year however is great value for money, a wonderful tonic with music, laughter, and love!’
Book your Happy New Year tickets online through www.thefugard.com and see what type of magic theatre holds for you.