It seems an odd accusation to throw around – it probably speaks volumes for the cynical age in which we live – but Lara Foot Newton’s multi award-winning show, Karoo Moose, which opens the Tricycle theatre’s South African season, has drawn the occasional complaint of being “too hopeful”, writes Matthew Amer.
The South African writer/director laughs as she speaks the words, citing worldwide sensation Susan Boyle as living proof that life can always take a turn for the better. Of course, we are talking before the world started to question whether thrusting unprepared performers under such microscopic media scrutiny and claustrophobic pressure was a good idea.
“There’s a lot about [Karoo Moose] that is uplifting; the style, the presentation, the music, the imagery,” she explains about the show which has enjoyed an incredible reception in South Africa and is testing the international waters for the first time at the influential Kilburn venue.
“It’s about a young girl growing up in an impossible situation,” she continues, “where children are just not children; they don’t have the chance to experience childhood. Really, the theme is cross-generational trauma – trauma that has been passed on from generation to generation – and how within this situation children somehow manage to play and to survive and to find creativity.”
That sense of survival and growth against the odds is the natural home of hope, but it comes amid appalling acts and conditions in which hope may be the only thing to cling onto, the tiny fingertip grips that stop sanity slipping away. Foot Newton is, after all, the artist who made such a hideous splash with Tshepang, the story of child rape in South Africa that rocked British theatregoers when it made its UK debut at the Gate theatre in 2004.
“It’s not so much the act of violence that interests me,” she explains, “but it’s the aftermath of violence and how people survive through the aftermath. It’s good for us in South Africa to enter into the discussion or to engage in the discussion of violence, because we’re living with it all the time. [We need] to see it from different angles and not just see it as something to be terrified about or to be negative about, but to try and understand it and understand where it’s coming from and why it’s there and how we can rise above it.”
With this UK premiere she is once again opening up that discussion to the wider world, courtesy of Nicolas Kent and the Tricycle theatre, which has a history of presenting South African work, having already played host to productions including Laurence Olivier Award-winner Kat And The Kings, Spice Drum Beat – Ghoema and satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys. According to Newton, it is, as a venue, “the perfect place to be with this play”.
“Children are just not children; they don’t have the chance to experience childhood”
The piece’s journey to the London stage is longer than a mere plane trip from South Africa and stretches back years before it even premiered in 2007. The seeds for the show were planted “many years ago” when Foot Newton was working in Sweden; her South African childminder shared an unlikely story about the children of the poor village in which she grew up and how they chased a moose, a creature which should only be found in North America or Europe.
“This idea, this picture of this moose running through the Karoo was something amazing for me,” she explains, a sense of wonder pervading her reminiscence. “It stayed with me for a long time. The Karoo has this magical sense about it, it does feel otherworldly, so I started seeing this picture of this young girl in this village and this moose, and the relationship between this foreign beast and the village.”
The piece, originally entitled No Fathers, was first written as a film script, before Foot Newton realised that financing the film’s production would prove a stumbling block and re-envisaged it as a play.
Even then it was not a swift process to bring Karoo Moose to the stage; it took the writer/director three years to assemble the perfect company to produce the play. Once everything was in place, however, “It was one of those real rare happenings in theatre when things come together smoothly and easily because everyone’s on the right buzz.”
It would seem that they have been “on the right buzz” ever since, as the production has already collected 14 South African awards, including Best New South African Play and Best New Production at the Naledi Theatre Awards, the country’s premiere theatre accolades. Newton laughs that while the company continues to pour its heart and soul into the production, “I go along occasionally and pick up an award.”
“It’s good for us in South Africa to enter into the discussion of violence, because we’re living with it all the time.”
She does herself somewhat of a disservice in playing down her efforts. As a writer/director she is at the forefront of the South African theatre scene and, in addition to worrying about her own career, also looks to help those around her and push South African theatre forward.
She laughs again, saying that the work she does is “not because I’m a nice person or anything; I really enjoy it,” though the impact on her of two theatrical practitioners may also have had a hand in shaping her dedication.
Thanks to a scheme sponsored by watchmakers Rolex, Foot Newton spent a year being mentored by Sir Peter Hall, a directorial figure unsurpassed within the theatre world.
“I learned a lot just from the way he is in the world,” Foot Newton says. “He’s an empire builder. He’s an amazing man and has a huge generosity of spirit. He’s very ambitious for you if you’re part of his circle.”
With her next breath, Foot Newton is telling me about a 21-year-old she is working with, “who’s come up with this fantastic piece. She’s now assisting me on my new project, so I’m helping her to develop her project a little bit further.” Three of the Karoo Moose cast, she adds, were mentored by her as directors before they joined the show. It does not sound as though Hall is the only one to have ambitions for those around him.
In her native South Africa, and before meeting Hall, Foot Newton was also taken under the wing of another senior, ground-breaking director, Barney Simon, who, with Mannie Manim, founded Johannesburg’s hugely influential non-racial Market Theatre in 1976. When he died in 1995, Foot Newton saw and felt the gap he would leave in South African theatre and, still finding her feet and in the full flush of youth – in the same year she won the Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year Award – decided to help continue his legacy by assisting other young directors. “It’s nice work,” she says.
When she talks about theatre in her country, that sense of hope, which some may have issues with, is more prevalent than ever. This could be, she thinks, the perfect time for the Tricycle theatre to host a South African season, as theatre within the country, which she has previously criticised, is getting more and more exciting. “There are little bubbles of work out there, especially in Cape Town. There’s more energy towards the arts. There’s a lovely buzz from young people coming out of universities, young women especially, making quite amazing stuff despite lack of funding.”
Situations, it seems, might be difficult, but such hardship breeds hope.