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Koos Kombuis

The murder of a once grand old theatre

2011-07-18 10:54
I have just returned from four days at the Vryfees in Bloemfontein. The Vryfees (don’t you just love the name?), previously known as the Volkslbladfees, is one of the most prestigious arts festivals in South Africa. It was indeed a wonderful experience. Bloemfontein, contrary to what the lyrics of a certain old David Kramer song say, is a great place, with great people. Five of the six productions I was involved with, drew capacity crowds, and a good time was had by all.

There was only thing that irked me.

Allow me to quote from a short letter published in Volksblad on the 14th of July, and written by a disgruntled theatregoer called Elize Stockigt (I am translating from Afrikaans):

“We went to watch two Vryfees productions at the André Huguenet Theatre on Wednesday… The productions were excellent… but it was so dark in the theatre before the show that we had to struggle to find our seats… the air conditioning still doesn’t work… before the show, no cold drinks, fruit juice or water was for sale… when I asked if they could provide my grand-daughter, Jane (7) with half a cup of water, I was informed politely that they had no access to the water… Oh Bloemfontein, where did it all go so wrong? This complex, which used to be the pride of our cuty, is now an embarrassment… I really don’t know what the actors thought of this once wonderful theatre…”

Dear Ms Stockigt, I can tell you exactly what I thought, and believe me, my experiences were even worse than yours. I happened to do three performances of our Brooklyn Babalaas show in this once grand old theatre with co-musicians Jak de Priester and his band.

I was very excited to perform at the famous André Huguenet Theatre. I love old theatres, and I had always wanted to sing in a place like that. My first impressions, on arrival, were very favourable. I was awed by the old paintings and photographs in the foyer, the mysterious and dingy little corners, the aura of history and culture emanating from every mysterious nook and cranny.    

It bothered us a bit, when we arrived, that so much of the furniture seemed to be in a state of disrepair, or that no-one had taken the trouble of picking up the cigarette butts at the front door, but we took this in our stride. We were unprepared for the horrors that awaited us backstage.

This is just a random shot I took with my Blackberry in the semi-darkness. The entire backstage area and surrounding offices, cubicles, and storage facilities looked like this. The place resembled a deserted squatter camp. Heaps of festering rubbish, discarded and broken equipment, empty bottles and old fast food containers littered most of the building as far as we could see.

The floors were filthy. The single toilet allocated to our cast of four did not flush properly, had no toilet paper, and the light bulb was out of order. When we asked for mineral water the first evening, we were rudely refused by someone we mistook for a stage manageress. (Our mistake!) The sound crew and foyer staff – with whom we eventually established a good working relationship in spite of the language and cultural differences – kindly brought us mineral water only before the last of our three performances, though of course it was not their duty to provide such services. The run ended up a great success, with excellent sound and lighting and even one standing ovation, but no-one in the audience knew under what difficult circumstances we were doing our jobs.

Utterly unacceptable

We received our final insult when, after parking for free in the parking garage before the first two shows, we were confronted, on arrival at the theatre for our last performance, by an obviously drunk or stoned security guard who angrily demanded money for his duties. We paid him money, more than what he asked us for, just to get him off our backs. After the show, this guard whom we had paid to look after our vehicle was nowhere to be seen.

I don’t know who is to blame for this state of affairs – the theatre management or the organizers of the Vryfees. Frankly, I don’t care. I just know that such a thing would never ever happen at Innibos or the KKNK. Forcing performing artists to work in such sordid circumstances is utterly unacceptable. As for allowing such a once grand old theatre, rich in South African folklore and cultural history, to go down the drain in such a big way… well, that is a crime comparable to murder.   


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