Anna Coombs is the Artistic Director of Tangle Theatre Company
Tangle’s productions champion multiple global theatre influences — Southern African township and collective theatre making techniques, Zimbabwean oral culture and some European approaches. The work brings together scripted dialogue, storytelling, live music and song, poetry and dance in a distinctive style drawing on the traditions of many cultures.
We have long been inspired by the legacy of ‘township theatre.’ In South Africa during the 1950s it was difficult for black people to establish a public voice, so theatre became a powerful way for people of all racial heritages to protest against the apartheid.
During this decade, some great theatre makers and writers, such as Ian Bernhardt and Athol Fugard began to make work. Few of these plays were performed, though, in the areas where black people actually lived. Most lived in ‘townships’ where there were schools and churches, but very little organized entertainment. In Zimbabwe, most theatres and playhouses were inaccessible to the majority of indigenous theatre groups and indigenous local audiences.
In the 1960’s a vibrant movement began to evolve when plays were specifically developed and performed for, and with, residents of South African townships. Gibson Kente is often seen as the ‘father’ of township theatre. In Port Elizabeth, Athol Fugard and his wife Sheila began a small theatre group called the Circle Players. Later on, Fugard worked with John Kani and Winston Ntshona, creating Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island, which would go on to win international acclaim.
As repression grew and the voices of political activists like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo were increasingly silenced, theatre became an even more important in voicing the struggle to challenge the ‘apartheid state’. Theatre was a way for people of all kinds to express frustration and anguish. New and innovative venues began to emerge and productions of controversial local work found their homes in various places across South Africa. Similarly, use of powerful political and social messaging expressed with minimal sets and through ensemble working is a feature of all Tangle’s work today.
As well as landmark theatres emerging such as The People’s Space, The Market Theatre and The Baxter Theatre Centre, there was an explosion of other venues and community arts groups in townships such as Soweto. These helped to shape the political agenda of many South Africans. After South Africa’s new freedom in 1994, there was a shift change around theatre making. 20 years on, new talent is growing fast and plays written today encompass a broad range of global themes.
Tangle has picked up on this theme of inaccessibility and used it to make our touring work more relevant to audiences today. We focus particularly on reaching people in parts of England who might not have a theatre on their doorstep. Whilst our current programme focusses on reimagining classic texts in the township style, rather than brand new plays, our production choices have a strong resonance with contemporary social and political topics. We’re also following the pattern of Zimbabwe’s indigenous theatre companies, like Amakohosi Theatre in Bulawayo, and our own, like the Swindon-based Meet My Ancestors, by creating theatre that can be performed not only in conventional spaces but in community centres, schools, halls and even outdoors.
Tangle’s productions are scaleable, and adaptive to different environments, with the audience integral to the action and very close to all that happens on stage. Whilst we do not usually invite direct verbal dialogue with audiences as traditional township works do, our productions place audiences at the centre of activity, just like our predecessors in Southern Africa have done for decades. An incredible dynamism is established between those performing and those watching.
Tangle’s latest production Richard the Second is touring England at the moment
Barnfield Theatre, Exeter, Fri 28 October | Taunton Brewhouse, Sun 30 October | Chulmleigh College, Devon, Tue 1 November | Gillingham School Theatre, Dorset, Wed 2 November | Theatre Royal Winchester, Thu 3 November | Lighthouse, Poole, Fri 4 November | Pegasus, Oxford, Sat 5 November| Omnibus Theatre, London, Wed 9 – Sun 27 November