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Welcome to SENTINEL LITERARY QUARTERLY

Vol.4. No.1. October - December 2010

 


Interviews

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Shakespeare in Mzansi: A South African Perspective

The SLQ Interview with MINKY SCHLESINGER

 

By Tinashe Mushakavanhu

 

Can Shakespeare be adapted to South Africa today, speak to the hearts of South Africans about South Africans? The answer to this question is yes. In 2008 the Gauteng Film Commission of South Africa in collaboration with the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) produced Shakespeare stories. Shakespearean plays centre on universal themes of love, politics, power, religion, race and these are themes that affect everyone wherever they may be. The Shakespeare in Mzansi mini-series project delved deeper into and examined the human experiences of South Africans, probing into the morals and values that they use to shape their lives and their country, and the films used historical and contemporary contexts to affirm who they are, building unity in an experience of their South Africanness. 

 

One of the popular adaptations was uGugu noAndile inspired by Shakepeare's Romeo and Juliet. Produced by Minky Schlesinger and Lodi Matsetela, it was the third of four mini-series which aired on SABC1 from March to August, 2008. The others were Entabeni (Macbeth), Izingane zoBaba (King Lear) and Death of a Queen (also Macbeth). uGugu no Andile is a love-story set against the backdrop of the war that raged through South Africa's townships in the early 90s. It tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers, unlucky enough to be born into families on opposite sides of the political and cultural divide. Gugu is a sweet and innocent 16-year old, coming from a Zulu-speaking family, while Andile, 18 and equally ready for love, comes from a family steeped in the Xhosa tradition. It is 1993, a year before the first democratic elections in South Africa, and the township of Thokoza is a hotbed of political violence, carved up between supporters of the two main political parties.

 

The drama series uGugu noAndile was turned into a feature film, which was well received in the rest of Africa. The 96-minute feature version was selected in the FESPACO competition in Burkina Faso, the oldest and largest film festival on the continent and clinched several awards at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in Nigeria. African audiences appear to relate to uGugu noAndile as a recognizably African story. It went on a successful tour of Europe as well.

 

Sentinel Literary Quarterly Editor, Tinashe Mushakavanhu, interviewed South African filmmaker Minky Schlesinger.

 

Responding to questions after a lecture delivered at the Baxter Theatre in 2005, Sir Peter Hall, the founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company, was asked what he thought of translations of Shakespeare. “Oh”, he responded brusquely, “Shakespeare is untranslatable!” How was the process of adapting Shakespeare for you?

 

I must emphasize that neither the 6-part series uGugu no Andile, nor the feature film Gugu & Andile is a direct translation of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet.  Our intention was to remain faithful to Shakespeare’s themes, which we see as the futility of war, and the hope for reconciliation. In fact, these themes were the impetus for creating uGugu no Andile, being vital issues in contemporary South Africa.

         

Our film can be seen as an adaptation, rather than as a translation, of Romeo & Juliet. We made no attempt to incorporate Shakespeare’s language. Much of the beauty and complexity of Shakespeare’s original lies in his use of language. However, film language is more visual than verbal, and we tried to find visual equivalents of the poetry where possible.

         

In terms of translating Shakespeare: I’d imagine that his language would be difficult to translate. That said, I believe anything can be translated, given a skilled translator with enough (paid) time to do the work. I see no reason why Shakespeare would be the one writer to be ‘untranslatable’.

 

Is Shakespeare a necessary cultural figure in Africa? Why is there a need to contextualize him in (South Africa)? Why does (South) Africa have to bother with Shakespeare anyway? Does a use of Shakespeare help in the understanding of South Africa’s cultural identity?

 

I don’t see Shakespeare as a ‘necessary’ cultural figure in Africa, but he’s a potentially valuable one. While it’s true that we Africans need to understand and assert our own cultural identity, especially in the face of rampant globalization, I see no ‘danger’ or ‘threat’ in using Shakespeare’s texts on this continent. If one sees culture in Africa purely as a struggle for self-determination, one might categorize Shakespeare as the colonial voice that needs to be submerged or conquered. However, we could find ourselves poorer for taking that position.

 

While I strongly support the values of rediscovering and reasserting our African heritage, I don’t believe that we can get back to some purer form of African culture in contemporary South Africa. We live in a post-colonial world and need to embrace that. If we can make Shakespeare work for us in Africa, why not do so? As long as we are using Shakespeare, rather than the other way round. 

 

Our series attracted interest, less because it was based on Shakespeare, than because it spoke to the audience about burning issues in our own country. Shakespeare’s genius (aside from his extraordinary language) lies in his complex engagement with grand universal themes, which is probably why his texts prevail.

 

Who is the primary target of the Shakespeare in Mzansi project? Is this for a specific black audience? If so, doesn’t this confirm Shakespeare as a European cultural import and complicates the very idea of an autonomous South African identity you are also trying to promote in the series?

 

I think this is more a question for the broadcaster who commissioned the Shakespeare in Mzansi project, than for the individual filmmaker. The SABC has an agenda to build a unified South African nation. As a filmmaker, I’m not trying to promote a South African, or any other kind of identity. I am South African and identify myself as such. However, I see identity as being fluid and complex and would hope that my work reflects this.

 

As for uGugu no Andile, it is a profoundly South African series, and makes no gestures towards British or European culture. Being predominantly in the languages of isiZulu and isiXhosa, it is definitely aimed at a local black audience. This audience identified with it strongly, eager to watch an authentic portrayal of a vexed period in our history.

 

But can Shakespeare be really adapted to South Africa and speak to the hearts of South Africans?

 

Judging from the response to the Shakespeare in Mzansi project, I would say ‘yes’. All the series in the project (2 different versions of Macbeth, a King Lear, and our Romeo and Juliet) had huge returning audiences each week, and certainly spoke to ‘the hearts of South Africans’. Partly, this might have had to do with the careful scripting and high production values we maintained, rather than that they were based on Shakespeare’s texts. However, Shakespeare knew a good story when he came across it, and used such stories as the basis for many of his plays. Essentially, we are continuing his process.

 

Was the scripting of uGugu no uAndile difficult? Are there many points of divergence with the original Romeo and Juliet? Did you face any challenges?

 

The scripting of uGugu no Andile was certainly challenging. That our medium was television made it all the more so.  Watching a stage performance, an audience happily suspends their disbelief in aspects of the production. Television or film requires far more ‘believability’. One cannot expect an audience to ‘buy’, for instance, the idea that two teenagers in contemporary South Africa would marry without their parents consent or knowledge, as Romeo and Juliet do. Likewise, we needed to broaden the idea of the feuding families so as to encompass the entire community of Thokoza, rather than using Gugu and Andile’s parents as the focus of disapproval.

 

Essentially, we retained much of Shakespeare’s broad structure and many of his characters, but added elements of our own (the photographs of Third Force agents, for instance) to get our story across. The photograph subplot is the major divergence from the original, and was necessary to make this series primarily for a local audience, rather than another verbatim adaptation of Shakespeare.

 

The major challenge in scripting the series lay in local sensitivity around the issues we were addressing. We South Africans see ourselves as the ‘Rainbow Nation’, an inspirational model for less democratic societies. While we have made enormous strides in that direction, divisions based on ethnicity, race and language are deep-seated, and result in horrifying incidents such as the xenophobic killings of May 2008. It is partly because these divisions seemed (at least to me) to be deepening in our society, that I wanted to make uGugu no Andile. It is to the SABC’s credit that they broadcast the series, deeming it to be in line with the aim of nation-building.

 

uGugu no uAndile certainly incorporates local social and political allusions, in which period of the South African history is it set, and why that specific period or context?

 

The series is set in the township of Thokoza in 1993, just prior to the first democratic elections.

This era was fraught with tensions based on political/ethnic/language divides, providing the appropriate setting for a version of Romeo & Juliet. To get an audience to accept that the enmity between two feuding local factions was strong enough to see them killing each other in the street, Thokoza 1993 was the best place to set it.

 

We were asked for a local, contemporary setting. For me, the requirements of the story are paramount, with the proviso that the history is not misrepresented. Since it would have been remiss to present this version of events as stemming from some sort of ‘natural’ hatred, we introduced the Third-Force-photographs subplot, providing a necessary political context.

 

Is there any specific filmic model you followed in making this drama, considering that Shakespeare has been adapted for TV drama before, elsewhere – eg, in London and Hollywood?

 

No, uGugu no Andile wasn’t based on any other version of Romeo & Juliet. Over the years I’ve seen the Zefferelli version, Baz Luhrman’s version, and numerous stage-plays, which no doubt influenced the film-making. But I was probably equally influenced by any number of other films and books about young love and death, that had nothing to do with Shakespeare. Influence is everywhere.

 

Ok, what is Shakespearean about the adaptation except the fact that Romeo and Juliet is the template from which this creation has sprung?

 

This is an interesting question and brings up the issues of intertextuality and postmodernism.  Scholars who have a deeper understanding than I do of these ideas would be better able to analyze the series through such filters.

 

Let me say that, for me, uGugu no Andile is an entirely new creation. Although ‘new’ films/books/plays/ pieces of visual art may be based on, or incorporate, preceding works, they are still separately themselves.

 

What is Shakespearean about the series is the general theme of war between brothers, and the tragic consequences before peace and reconciliation can be reached. We have also borrowed from Shakespeare’s wonderful characters in the form of the hot-headed Mandla/Tybalt, the peace-loving Ras Bennie/Mercutio, the teasing Ma’Lizzie/Nurse, and others.

 

 Romeo and Juliet is about a forbidden love at first sight and popular culture deployments of Shakespeare have tended to advance uncritically common ideas without necessarily questioning the complicated dynamics layered in his plays. In light of this, what is different about your adaptation?

 

I’m not really sure what you are asking here. Are you asking whether we have given our Romeo/Andile and Juliet/Gugu enough shading and complexity as characters? Ie Have we dealt with their love in a complex enough manner?

 

If this is the question, I don’t believe their love story to be particularly complex in the original. They are together only a few times in the play, and spend the second half separated and pining for each other.

 

The complexity lies more in the plot with its missed letters, and false (then real) suicides.  We have used the element of the missed letter (as in the original) to underline the role of chance in the tragedy. I believe that we were highly aware of the ‘complicated dynamics’ of the play - that it is as much about sacrifice and reconciliation, as it is about love - and worked with the dynamics that elucidated our own story. We also threw the pretty complicated dynamics of our own South African situation into the pot.

 

How did you balance the original dialogue and the nuances of the new language?

 

We did not attempt to translate Shakespeare neither were we faithful to Shakespeare’s language. uGugu no Andile is not a translation of Romeo & Juliet, in that sense. Rather, it is a free adaptation of the play - an attempt to make the ideas of the play chime for a television-watching local audience. I’m not sure what the value would be of a direct translation of the text into our vernacular.

 

After the scripts were written (in English) we spent a week with our cast translating them into the vital street language of Thokoza 1993. Of course, Ma’Lizzie speaks a more classical, rural language, coming as she does from rural kwaZulu. This is a version of the language people sometimes refer to as ‘deep’ isiZulu. The other major language, spoken by Andile’s family, is isiXhosa. It was hugely important for us to get the quality of the language right, since much of the conflict at the time focused on the language a person spoke. Shakespeare’s language was secondary to these considerations.

 

 Can you define the Shakespeare in Mzansi project from a directorial point of view?

 

I cannot speak for the directors of the other Shakespeare in Mzansi mini-series.  As the director of uGugu no Andile, I relished the opportunity of attempting tragedy, as opposed to melodrama, on the small screen, and for this opportunity I need to thank William Shakespeare. In general, television offers ersatz emotions and neat resolutions. Audiences are not used to seeing both their hero and heroine die at the end of a series. Neither are they thrown back on the ideas and themes of the drama, once their heroes are dead. Directing tragedy, rather than melodrama, meant that I had to think hard about the necessary performance style, the rhythm and weight required, without allowing the series to become portentous, which would have been a sure way to lose the audience.

 

How has been the project received by the South African audiences?

 

uGugu no Andile had the highest Audience Ratings (ARs) of any drama on South African television for the full 6 weeks of broadcast. This was in the region of 4 million viewers (or one tenth of the population) every week.

 

Viewership and popularity were high, but the series was not without controversy. Some people were fearful of the possible effects of being reminded of a dark period in our history. Others argued that we need to remember such times so as not to repeat them.

 

Some traditional Zulu leaders complained to the SABC that Zulus were being portrayed as unnecessarily violent. To their credit, the SABC took a firm stance on this. They believed that uGugu no Andile did not take sides, but spoke of a national tragedy where all were potential losers. The SABC also knew of the rigorous political analysis we had been through, during the scripting stage. In answer to the complaints, the SABC devoted a popular talkshow to a discussion on the image of the Zulu people on television, and invited the leaders to participate.

 

The drama has also been well received in the rest of Africa. The 96-minute feature version was selected in competition for FESPACO in Burkina Faso, the oldest and largest film festival on the continent. The feature has been nominated in numerous categories at the African Movie Academy Awards (AMAA) in Nigeria in April. Africans appear to relate Gugu & Andile as a recognizably African story. SLQ

 

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