Anelisa Phewa

Postcolonial Shakespearean Theatre and Poetry in South Africa

 

Interview audio

Published on 20 October 2023.

 

Anelisa Phewa, a Black South African man, stands with his hands clasped together in front of his chin. He is wearing a black blazer jacket. Behind him is a wood-paneled wall.

Anelisa Phewa

Christopher Thurman, a white South African man, pictures from the chest up.

Christopher Thurman

 

Interview transcript

Introduction

Amrita Dhar 

Hello and welcome. My name is Amrita Dhar, and I am the Director of the project Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies which is hosting a series of interviews with postcolonial Shakespeareans from around the world.

In today’s conversation, our invited collaborator Professor Christopher Thurman of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg speaks with the South African actor, singer, dancer, and translator Anelisa Phewa. 

 

Conversation

Christopher Thurman

Greetings everyone and thank you for joining us. My name is Chris Thurman. I am the director of the Tsikinya-Chaka Centre, a research unit at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa with a satellite office in Somerset West, down in the Western Cape, which is where I am currently speaking from. And the person I’m speaking to is, in fact, based in Johannesburg. He is Anelisa Phewa. He is the Resident Artist at the Tsikinya-Chaka Centre for 2022, amongst many other things we could tell you about him. But rather than hearing about that from me, let me ask Anelisa to introduce himself.

Anelisa Phewa

Hi, Chris. Hello, everyone. Thank you for having me. I think professionally, I am an actor. I am an educator. I am a student. I am the director of a drama consultancy in South Africa called Dramatec, and I am a father to a five-year-old girl. I think that about sums it up. [laughs]

Christopher Thurman

Wonderful, thank you. We’ll unpack all of those different identities as the conversation proceeds. Later on, I’m sure we can talk about your student identity: your Master’s research project and the work that you’re doing into the translation and performance of Shakespeare’s sonnets in isiZulu. And we can talk about your teaching identity, and your work with other students and young actors. But maybe for now, we should dial things back, dial back the clock, to your own upbringing, because part of the point of reference for this series of conversations is the educational contexts in which young learners encounter Shakespeare in, let’s call it postcolonial or Global South… Did you come to Shakespeare outside of school and the curriculum? While you were still a high school student? Did you explore Shakespeare beyond the curriculum? Did you know then that you were going to be an actor? These are many questions I have. I’d love to get to know adolescent and teenage Anelisa a bit better. 

Anelisa Phewa

[laughs] Adolescent Anelisa was already quite the experienced actor. I started acting when I was four. So, by the time I entered high school in grade eight, I was definitely familiar with the Boards, as it were, but I wasn’t familiar with the Bard yet.

Christopher Thurman

[laughs]

Anelisa Phewa

It was only in grade 10 that I first encountered Romeo and Juliet, and it was gorgeous. I really enjoyed it; it was so musical for me. And I wanted to unpack it, you know, because there, there was something about the speech that was sing-songy. But in the sing-song, I lost the sense. And you had archaic words that we didn’t quite understand and the meaning… So it felt like a little bit of a word puzzle for me. And I took it on that way. And as I was studying it, and finding the differences between the speeches, and just how people are communicating, I really enjoyed that journey. So, we did Romeo and Juliet in grade 10, King Lear in grade 11, and we did Hamlet in grade 12.  

That was my exposure to them, but not from a performance point of view, that was just from a literatures point of view. Just getting familiar with the text and themes and the universality of the human experience and how it was captured by Shakespeare back then, you know, and all of those themes that still [laughs] persist today.  

But in varsity, I took on Shakespeare from a more performance point of view, but that was in second year where I took on Hamlet again. I still remember the speech that I did, was:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ’gainst self-slaughter!

[laughs] You know, little snippet over there. Did that in second year. It blurs into my professional repertoire…

Christopher Thurman

[laughs]

Anelisa Phewa

… as well because then after varsity, with Maynardville, the Shakespeare Festival over there, did A Comedy of Errors, I did Twelfth Night, did A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then Hamlet again. So, in that whole mess, I’ve been working with Shakespeare for a couple years now. 

Christopher Thurman

Fantastic. My sense is that for people of, perhaps your and my generation, to do Shakespeare was to, as you put it earlier, to be introduced to something that you were understood to accept as a universal truth, and kind of universal text, that you could imbibe for your own edification and self-improvement, and you would now have access to a kind of globally-shared knowledge which would be good for you. Take your Shakespeare like medicine. South Africa has many different educational contexts that range from highly resourced to deeply under-resourced, and that has an impact on Shakespeare, teaching and learning as well. And also, of course, that some learners will encounter Shakespeare through a first-language English curriculum. Those who are not taking English as a first language are less likely to encounter Shakespeare as part of their school experience nowadays. And of course, there’s a wider discussion around the presence of Shakespeare on the curriculum at school level at all—a conversation that rears its head in, in South Africa every few years.

I guess we can hope that things are a little bit different, in some schooling contexts in South Africa: a shift from text to appreciation of Shakespeare as performance, or for performance, and maybe a wider sense of the critical discussions around colonial literary legacies. And I guess we could hope, a South African high school student now being introduced to a kind of critical reflection on what enters into the curriculum, and why they’re engaging with it. Although, I think quite often that is not the case, so maybe that’s idealistic on my part. But, maybe this is a very long and roundabout way of asking you about the shift from the universal, let’s call it, to the particular, or the global to the local, and your sense of when Shakespeare became to you a way of engaging specifically with your world and your environment and with South Africa, rather than a way of accessing, a kind of putatively universal experience. 

Anelisa Phewa

Hm! [laughs] When I look at how we learnt Shakespeare, at least our first encounter with it… We encountered Shakespeare in English class, and it was always very enjoyable for me. And I guess for the rest of the class. [laughs] That’s where a lot of my classmates sleep, because we are listening. Our teacher would do a reading. And it was quite interesting because we are now experiencing the play as an audience. But it’s a play reading. But she would play all the different characters. I thought she was very good.

Christopher Thurman

Mhm.

Anelisa Phewa

And as a result, it became a radio drama for me. So, it was still a lived-in experience. And from her interpretation you could hear… So, for example, when she said “nuncle” The fool in King Lear references Lear himself as “nuncle.” That stood out to me because it was a weird word. It’s close enough to an English word. But then there’s that strange “n” in the beginning. And we paused and we asked, what is that reference? And she broke it down and sort of spread it out. And it was an expression of “mine uncle.” But then abbreviated becomes “nuncle.” So, we have this living dictionary that we can interact with, hear the story, talk about it, ask questions. So, it was very thorough for me, and maybe that points to a certain type of educational system. I mean, there were only twenty of us in the class. It was an IEB, that’s an Independent Examination Board School, which has an independent examiner, separate from government institutions and other private institutions. In terms of my familiarity, that was my experience.

And then, however many years later, now I’m dealing with a current student who is a performer. And part of his school’s program was to… It’s called AMP, the Amateur Mentor Program. And what I’m doing over there is: as an individual, as a professional actor, who has worked Shakespeare, I’m mentoring a matriculant, or a grade 11 student, who is a performer, who is transitioning across into, as a performer, is moving from slam poetry and rhythmic poetry and all of those different types of poetry, and we are going into the heightened text. And they are using a mode of education that is performance-based, but they’re also aligning him with a professional who understands the material, who understands being a performer in matric, and they’re doing it this way.  

Shakespeare in great, in that he can translate ideas across—but the ideas themselves are universal. Today, what’s our appeal, what’s our reference? And from a structural point of view, we know that he’s got these various toys that he plays with to craft his material, you know, from the language to the rhyming couplets, to the quatrains, all of that, breaking it up, putting it together, feminine endings, masculine endings, you know, he’s got all of these tools that he plays with, to identify a style, but the style is communicating about the world that he’s living in, because that’s essentially all we can really do, right? And yet, we still have his work as verbal architecture that we can use, you know. Because for example, you talk about the physicality of the sonnet form. Now, the sonnet form is just 14 lines and a metric structure: quatrains and a rhyming couplet. But I can completely speak in that format, without the heightened Elizabethan speech, because it’s a technical, it’s a technical form that he used to get his ideas across. So really, this is just a commentary on my internal landscape interacting with my external landscape, and the friction between the two.

So, is Shakespeare relevant today? I think so, just from a time reference, but also from a, if… Imagine Shakespeare as a skateboarder, or yeah, he had this little handbook of all these tricks that has survived. So we can add on to that. We don’t have to necessarily continue writing in the heightened form, but we can keep the structures. For example, with my work that I’m doing with the translation. I’m keeping the form, but I’m working in a different language. So, I’ve learnt from him, but I have taken on my own idea toward that expression.

Christopher Thurman

I want to push you a little bit more on that word “friction,” which you introduced earlier. And I guess what for many people in a South African context, postcolonial context, Global South context, is a kind of conflict with Shakespeare. Not necessarily with Shakespeare the writer, Shakespeare the man, Shakespeare the body of work, but with Shakespeare as symbol. And, in particular, in our context, our multilingual South African context, Shakespeare’s English, and its economic capital, social capital, its association with our colonial history in Southern Africa. So, when you are thinking, you’ve talked about your work, both as translator and as teacher, so you very helpfully connected for me the dots from you, as student to you as teacher, you as performer-in-training, to you as professional performer and creative practitioner. We’re going to fill in the gap between those two, with a question a bit later. But for now, how do you as a Black South African performer in 2022 see yourself navigating those questions? Is it irrelevant to you? Are the questions of race and history that come with language necessarily embedded in your translation practice? When you’re reflecting on translating sonnets into isiZulu, and you’re thinking about the implications of performance of what is traditionally seen as kind of lyrical, poetic texts? And you’re thinking about, the sonnet in performance, are you really thinking in the technical terms purely that you’ve been describing? Or is there, could I call it, a kind of ideological, political aspect to that practice? 

Anelisa Phewa

Ha! Maybe I’m coming from a privileged point of view. I think I am. So, for me, I don’t identify with the problem as such. For me, it’s, Shakespeare is a technical exercise without race, because there’s a how-to, and that really comes from the myth of language. My argument to myself, and to my students, I’ll argue that language doesn’t exist. And I’ll argue that what exists, and maybe this is coming from an actor’s point of view, is the spirit that feels, and the spirit that feels sends the feeling to the cerebral, and the cerebral connects those ideas outward, through an agreement where: “I am hungry.” It’s a feeling first, and then I’ve taken these sounds and I’ve constructed a language that we agree upon to communicate this idea, so that we may survive. So, coming from that sort of [laughs] point of view, I don’t really struggle with the idea of language, because I understand language as just a transactional sort of interaction.  

But it does reflect culture, right? So, for example, when I do translate, I do look to try and keep the iambic pentameter, that rhythmic structure that is, that defines that Elizabethan poetry. And with the sonnet, I’ll keep the physical form that is 14 lines so that it looks the same. But then when I change the language, the musicality remains. So that my grandmother says, “My goodness, my boy, what a beautiful way to say that.” And that way of saying it, I’m trying to keep the beauty and the musicality, and all of the things that makes Shakespeare mesmerizing to us. But all he’s saying is, “Oh, my goodness, what a beautiful day, what a beautiful girl you are, and if I could do it, I would compare you to that.” It’s a lot more eloquent, and I guess that it’s more poetic that way. And I tried to keep the sense of the poetry and I’m moving it from one cultural understanding to another, from Shakespeare’s to my grandmother’s here. And I am privileged enough to know both languages well enough, technically enough to super impose those elements onto that. So for me, there is no real friction. But I know that some people do struggle with it because they feel oppressed by it. But that’s from an understanding and a linguistic point of view where they say, “Why can’t we study this? Why must we study that? We want to see ourselves, and this is not us”—right? That’s a kind of global tribalism that says, “I want to shine my own culture and language and forms of expression, as opposed to taking on this difficult, irrelevant form.” Because generally, when you are given Shakespeare, he’s usually imposed upon you. You generally have to do it, you know. So it feels forced. And I guess maybe from the point of view there, it feels like just another thing that you have to do, and people then generally develop an attitude towards it.

But for me, it’s craft. You know, a friend of mine said, “What, what is the use of Shakespeare today?” And I said to him… He says, “You’re a film actor. What does it make sense?” I said, I can copy the structure, the musicality of the structure, into a Xhosa sentence. And I still have the sentence. The sentence is: “Wazi ntoni ngeminqweno kaNonkasa? Uvavanyo lokholo asizoluyeka ngexa yob’uyazifela ngalaNondatshaza.” This is a rhyming couplet of… But it’s in Xhosa. But in between, there’s a musicality that is more akin to hip hop, that if I can ride it, you will get the sense through the musicality. Because I’m familiar with the structural pillars, that exists within all languages, because all languages again, just reflect that inner being, that inner spirit that has taken on these sounds to create these forms of meaning. So…

Christopher Thurman

So…

Anelisa Phewa

I don’t have any tension. 

Christopher Thurman

It’s really interesting to think about music, because I just had in mind as you were talking about musicality, your translation of Sonnet 116 into isiZulu, in which I think you subvert the traditional tone of that sonnet, through music, creating a much more kind of mournful atmosphere. And one that sort of undermines the slightly cliché, you know, lovelorn figure. And I wonder if you could do two things for us. One might be to, just to revisit those isiXhosa lines, that couplet, to tell us a little bit about that interlingual movement, and what those lines actually signify. And then perhaps, to talk a little bit about your self-recorded, self-translated and musically self-accompanied version of Sonnet 116.

 

 

Anelisa Phewa

There are two languages there. So, the one was a Xhosa translation, and the other was a Zulu translation. So the lines that I just spoke were Xhosa lines. And Xhosa has as different musicality to Zulu. They’re both Nguni languages, but they have different tones. And I’m able to flip between the two because my mother is Xhosa and my father is Zulu. That was complicated. But I have access to both languages. So yes, this was in a series that I played in, and the sentence means: “Wazi ntoni ngeminqweno kaNonkasa?” “What do you know about Nonkasa’s wishes?” “Uvavanyo lokholo asizoluyeka ngexa yob’uyazifela ngalaNondatshaza.” “The test of faith is not going to stop because you find her irresistible.” Right… So, looking at it as a Zulu speaker speaking Xhosa, I had to find all the technical means to bring sense to that. Keep it musical, but also keep it within the character’s emotional frame of reference, and to chide his younger brother. So, there’s a lot of layering that is happening up there. So, I can attack it the way a rapper would: “Wazi ntoni ngeminqweno kaNonkasa? Uvavanyo lokholo asizoluyeka ngexa yob’uyazifela ngalaNondatshaza.” There’s a, an attitude there as well, and the words that equals it actually heightened as well. Because Nondatshaza is actually a very derogatory term for prostitute, you know. And this is a girl that he loves. So, my character is doing a lot of things: using heightened poetry to slam his younger brother down from a place of status. And he uses that language to echo that idea, you know. And he won’t be questioned, because he’s a figure of the church as well. So, all of that language comes together to represent that idea of oppression within that moment.  

Talking about the poem now, the sonnet is a Zulu translation. I kept the physical form of it the same.  Like I said, the fourteen lines. I kept to the quatrains and then the rhyming couplet. And what I was doing over there was that… As an actor, you have to interpret, um, the material that you perform. So, it’s not just to say, “I’m going to learn these lines, and I’m going to just be very good at it.” What is my interpretation? And within that story, I am speaking… The character is speaking that idea of, well, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments. Love is not love/ That alters when its alteration finds,/ Or bends with the remover to remove.” And I was testing the authenticity of these words, through this character, who is waking up alone. He’s sleeping. So, in his dream, in my interpretation, there are two figures in African garb, beautiful, it was a painting, and they’re moving away. He wakes up, he wakes up alone, you know. And I’m echoing these words, that you know, true love is this and true love is that—it doesn’t move way, it doesn’t behave in this way and it lasts, and it is “an ever-fixed mark that looks on tempests and is never shaken.” And yet this man’s love is not that. He’s lost it. So, what was the authenticity of his love, you know? So he’s reflecting in her absence, that, well, I guess she loves me not.

I wasn’t translating word for word, but rather the feeling of… I mean, when I speak the language now and then I interpret that into English again, you’ll hear the words are different, because I’ll say, “Uthando lwangempela’l’al’hlulwa yilutho, Nami nge’ngil’phikis’ ngoba’l’phikiswa.” And that means: “Nothing compares with true love, and you cannot argue that; no one can.” But those are different words to “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/ Admit impediments.” But emotionally it means the same thing. For me, in my interpretation. I stand behind them, you know.

But then I also use cultural signifiers that makes sense for an African people. Because what is a tempest to my grandmother, who lives in Africa? “[A]n ever-fixed mark/ That looks on tempests and is never shaken.” Those are references that reflect a different side of the world for us, a side the world that does experience tempests that we would make sense of in terms of that one reference. But I say to her, “Cha bo!Cha bo! Lena iMbokodo; yhintsimbi ayigobi. wathint’ imbokodo, wathint’ abafazi.” Imbokodo is a rock, it is a thing that we know that signifies strength. Right, but here’s another idiom there, it is “a red hot poker that doesn’t bend.” “yhintsimbi ayigobi.” They’ll say something like “intsimbi … intsimb’uyayaz.” And what they’re saying over there is, “You know, a piece of metal. It is strong, and this is it.” And I use that as a reference because the people that I’m speaking to understand this context, more than the context that was pointed out by a man who lived four hundred years ago. So he was talking about his context with his people in his land. And I’m talking to my people in my language about the context of what he was talking about. Because what he was talking about is still relevant today. I’m still heartbroken, I’m still sad. [laughs] You know, I still feel all that I feel. And I can use these words as a, um, form of expression, to purge this feeling, to validate that this is a true thing. He felt it, I felt it, they will feel it tomorrow. Therefore, I have a place today here now. But how I communicate those ideas is the difference, because ultimately, I’ll argue it’s that it’s inner human being that feels first before we send um, our emotions up to our heads to become the agreed-upon language or form of expression. 

Christopher Thurman

That’s fascinating. I’m just struck, as you’re talking by in some ways, the… What is enabled by the fact that’s effectively a kind of solo project, right? So, you’re communicating with a very widespread audience, making lots of sophisticated articulations between languages and cultural points of reference. And there’s something very exciting about your sonnet project, which is enabled by that as, let’s call it solo work. 

 

 

But of course, most of your TV and stage and film work has been as part of an ensemble or a cast. You’ve been involved in some very interesting experiments. For example, I think about the three-man Richard III some years ago. You’ve also been in Midsummer Night’s Dream that I’ve seen you, and we’ve also talked about your Romeo and Juliet. But I’d love to go back a few years to your, um, early professional experiences in your time. For example, in Maynardville, you spoke about doing quite a bit of Shakespeare at Maynardville.

For those who are unfamiliar with Maynardville, it’s an outdoor Shakespeare-in-the-Park-type theatre, an annual summer performance in Cape Town. Goes back over fifty years or so, the tradition. And so, like many traditions, has both pros and cons. Some would say the cons are a certain way of doing Shakespeare. Shakespeare in the Park often comes with a certain set of aesthetics, or maybe we could say assumptions about politics. It’s complicated in the history of Maynardville. But the pros, of course, have been this annual tradition that people look forward to, which unfortunately was disrupted by COVID and other financial factors. Tell us a little bit about your time there, and how you think that might have shaped your experience as an actor. 

Anelisa Phewa

Well, when I was studying at UCT [University of Cape Town], we all knew about the Maynardville production. In fact, it was one of the productions that, when you finish, it was the show that you went and auditioned for. Because some people would graduate and then star in the Maynardville production. So, it was something that we highly anticipated, having, sort of, done the final year, fourth year of production there. I mean I played Laertes in our Hamlet in my final year in prep for Maynardville. So, it is, it is a tradition even within the drama school, where we are working towards being technically proficient enough to compete. When I graduated in 2005, I auditioned for the Maynardville. It was Geoffrey Hyland who was directing Twelfth Night, and that was a fantastic production. I mean, I got in there. Jeremy Crutchley was there, Robin Scott, Neil Adam, Nicholas Ellenbogen. It was quite a feat to join this production. And I got mentioned in the in the review as well, yes, “young man holding his own” [laughs] against all of these people who are doing such great work. And it was good for me to be in the space to see how other people work, how they deliver, how they attack it, and also just that communal space of how to keep the rhythm as a company alive, even in the pauses, even the changes, from a technical point of view. And I really enjoyed that. I’m a technician, so you’ll keep hearing me say “technical” [laughs] from time to time. But it was very good for me, and I got to understand the language a lot more, just in terms of the continuity between characters, where you look at the enjambment lines or lines that join each other and finish off and different endings and jokes and setting up… I mean, it was it was good for me. But, yeah, it was part of my accumulation, I guess. And, and I guess the one I really want to talk about [laughs] is the online Hamlet because I think that’s got more translingual politics, if you will.  

Christopher Thurman

So, for listeners who are not familiar with it, this is a production of Hamlet that was initially conceived for the stage at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, and was going to be produced in 2020, and did not occur, inevitably. But it did have a life. It had a life as a Zoom production that was very carefully styled and very particularly rehearsed by the cast so that it had a kind of coherent aesthetic. And so that the stage world that had been imagined as part of the production was still conveyed, even if only in a kind of narrative voiceover as part of the Zoom production. So, a really interesting experiment. What could you say were the key differences between your previous work either as an actor on the screen for camera on film and TV, or an actor on the stage, now finding yourself in this kind of in-between space? 

Anelisa Phewa

Again, when I talk to my students, I say to them, “There is only theatre.” And then different reflections of it, if you will. In that, even if this is a filmed situation and you are on the other side of camera, filming this, I am still in the physical space, and I am still interacting with the physical space and conjure up all of that artistry that reflects life, to, to communicate that meaning across. The only thing that changes is the medium, and that’s just a, an amplification. But being in that space, I recognize two things. So, we had a black backdrop. We used ring lights, and we were dressed in black. So, there was already a theatrical aesthetic there, because I felt very much as if I were backstage and coming back on and, you know…

But I was also very acutely aware of the fact that I am playing for film. Because I’m playing through the medium. There is a camera, there is an interaction, but there is still a world that I am interacting in. So, there’s a technical placement of who we are talking to and how we play dialogue. But the idea for me was that because I am in a world interacting with people in a world but through the phone, I could also cheat them into my space, you know, sort of super impose, flip the fourth wall to make that side and bring my entire world here where… Then I’m playing with things like eyeline, where if I’m looking directly at the camera here, I’m talking to Claudius. Now I’ve placed him there. “Now might I do it pat. And now I’ll do it!” Right? Because now I’m using audiences’ conduct from a filmic point of view, you see me and I’m in my own head here. I come to you, I come to this world. But it’s all still within a theatrical, filmic world.

I found that interesting, but what I enjoyed more so was the negotiation of the royal household. Because the royal household… Faniswa [Yisa] was Xhosa, is Xhosa. David, who plays Gertrude, is Xhosa-speaking. David Dennis is of coloured descent, but he is also Xhosa-speaking. And because I can speak both Zulu and Xhosa, it made sense for me to just jump ship and go to them so that we keep a continuity within the cultural house, the royal house, so that there aren’t any conflicts. Then anybody else could come in with any other thing but the royal house was Xhosa. But Xhosa is not my first language, so negotiating the lines to find the rhythm, placement… Because the one line moves in English within its own flow. I must find me, too, with a different language in the flow, not lose anybody but then still lead it to the next place where there’s a negotiation between the language that fit into the rhythmic structures, but still add some cultural flavor, nuance, but don’t take away from the original text. And that negotiation was very cool because we improvised our feeling, negotiated with each other, and then it was still sent to a linguistic support structure.

Christopher Thurman

Fundile Majola, I think…

Christopher Thurman

Right…

Anelisa Phewa

 … did some of the Xhosa translations, with Buhle Ngaba.

Anelisa Phewa

Yes, absolutely.

Christopher Thurman

Yes.

Anelisa Phewa

Absolutely. So, then they took the work that we had negotiated and translated, and they then brought it back to us once it was fixed and edited and made nice. And then we would then learn that and then perform that. So, we interacted with it, but then it came back refined. We were able to learn and deliver that as well. And I found that entire process really, really exciting. Because also, I was static, but the language has so much movement. And my frame is only this big, you know, so there was a lot of stuff to deal with. And I’m reading [laughs] on top of that… Because it was a play reading.

Christopher Thurman

I think what’s interesting about that production is that no one was quite sure what the genre was. Are we watching a staged reading? Are we watching kind of rehearsed, work-in-progress? And part of the kind of achievement I guess, of it was precisely that uncertainty. It was initially envisaged by the director Neil Coppen and subsequently in his work with his co-directors, Buhle Ngaba and Bianca Amato, very much as a South African Hamlet. And as you say, you spoke about the royal household, and a strong emphasis on South African languages as part of the character traits, we could say, of some of the characters, and the set that had been imagined and was described by the voiceover Narrator figure speaks about very specific South African symbols. And so, that is a production that kind of declares itself a South African Hamlet, which I think we could compare to something like the three-man Richard III, which had very interesting use of props and costuming, for the sake of the doubling and tripling that you were doing as three performers playing a full set of characters.  

But we’re still broadly in what we could call period dress, kind of imagining the medieval rather than the early modern world. And those to me seem like they’re not just aesthetic choices, but they also must come surely with some kind of claim about or commitment to either. I would say that on the one hand, you’ve presented to us Anelisa Phewa the theater maker, musician, orator, performer, who enjoys, as you’ve said, the technicalities of playmaking and staging but also of particular verse forms, and in some ways sees that as the primary structure and the, the particular language, whether it’s Shakespeare’s early modern English or contemporary isiXhosa, isiZulu ,as secondary, as you’ve said, making language secondary. So that I suppose draws a more clear line of continuity between Shakespeare’s context and our own, thinking about genre, thinking about the plays, and even the plots, but the characters, but also the technicalities of the language as a kind of placeholder. Whereas other aspects of our conversation when we talked a little bit about high school learners tuning out of the, the school experience or feeling a bit alienated from the work, or people who are not able to relate to the language or the cultural idiom of Shakespeare’s plays and—but benefit from and enjoy adaptation and translation into something specific. Again, we have the strand that says, well, there is a difference or a gap or conflict there that needs to somehow be resolved. Do you see yourself more as the inheritor of Shakespeare continuing a tradition that you see as more or less uninterrupted, despite its imbrication in colonial histories? Or do you see yourself as trying to take up a mantle of localization, translation, adaptation, etcetera? Or is that an unfair position to put you in, having to choose between them? 

Anelisa Phewa

I think it’s an interesting position to be in because we’re part of a conversation. And for me, if I look at just those two examples, already, there is a vast difference we’re looking at. So, the three-man Richard III references very definitely an old school period kind of pure poetry for the elite. But we are working on the cleanliness and the accessibility, but you have to be familiar with the material. And you have to be a keen observer, the observer in terms of listener, as it were. Versus the online Hamlet, which is already playing within cross-lingual spaces. But also, part of the problem is that we don’t know what you’re saying. So, one of my things being in film was that I took the size of Shakespeare, and I reduced it for the camera. And part of that is: bring the idea of intimacy, the confidant, the clarity of speech, what is actually bothering him, without the “To be or not to be!” I’m here with my own problem, and all I’m saying really is “Guys, I don’t know what to do. Shall I kill myself? Or shall I not? Well, which is better?” That’s the tone that I’m speaking that heightened text. “To be or not to be, that is the question.” What is the question? “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind, to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them.” Speaking the same lines, breaking up the iambic a little bit to try and bring this meaning, this problem, to you. So, I have no problem with Shakespeare, nor do I feel [laughs] I’m worthy to take up his mantle. But definitely to be the bridge across to say the man was saying this. It’s not that complicated. But all you have to do is look for it. And you don’t have to look for it. Your doctor studied medicine for twelve years, you know, your doctor studied for twelve years, you can consult with him at 250 Rand, for that he will explain to you what’s ailing. Same thing, we started the drama, we are the custodians, we stand here for you, and we bring it across in performance. You must understand this, and you must have an experience within this performance, to reflect on yourself. Because you matter. We perform to validate your experience. Yes. So, there’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re trying to bring people closer to each other, globally.

Christopher Thurman

Yeah…

Anelisa Phewa

… from the global to the singular. [laughs]

Christopher Thurman 

That feels like a very powerful note to end on, as a, not just a manifesto, but a kind of proud declaration of what it is that actors and theatre-makers and filmmakers can do and do for us as audiences, as consumers, for want of a better word. Which is an opportunity to make a final observation, which is the economic infrastructure of theatre-making and filmmaking in South Africa. But just to kind of note that it is a truism accepted, I guess in South Africa that theatre-makers and filmmakers, whether they’re doing Shakespeare or they’re doing, you know, anything else are up against it in terms of kind of resource-thin environment. And so that becomes a kind of overlay. But also, I guess we could say the difficult foundation on which so many performers are working. And so, to hear your, both your beautiful invocation of Shakespeare’s words, but also your, I think, quite accurate and strident description of what it is that theatre-makers do and always have done which is to connect, to be the bridge, to bring us closer to some kind of truth or closer to things that we battle to understand is really, really powerful. So, Anelisa, thank you for the privilege of listening to you discussing your work. It’s been a great pleasure listening to you. 

Anelisa Phewa

Thank you so much, Chris. Thank you for having me. 

 

Conclusion

Amrita Dhar 

If you enjoyed this conversation, please subscribe to this podcast, spread the word, and leave a review. Do take a look also at our project website at shakespearepostcolonies.osu.edu for materials supplementing this conversation and for further project details. Thank you for listening, and until next time, for the Shakespeare in the “Post”Colonies Project, I am Amrita Dhar.