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Sunday, May 17, 2009


Triumphant celebration evening for Ronnie Govender. (Review by Caroline Smart)

Last night was a triumph for acclaimed playwright Ronnie Govender, who celebrated his 75th birthday in the Playhouse Drama with a new production featuring excerpts from his best-loved works.

Now living in Cape Town, Ronnie Govender has made a lasting impact on theatre in Durban from the days when he and Dr Muthal Naidoo started the Shah Theatre Academy - and way before that - up to his tenure as Director of the Playhouse Theatre Complex and its Artistic Director of Drama before he was appointed Marketing Manager of the Baxter Theatre in 1991.

Having written some 14 plays, his impact on South African playwriting literature is impressive and will honour his memory long into the future after his bodily presence decides to leave this earthly plain. Although, observing his upright figure and energetic personality last night, he looks set to remain with us for many years to come!

His collection of short stories, At the Edge and Other Cato Manor Stories, won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in Africa in 1997, while his novel Song of the Atman was short-listed for the EU Literary Award and the Commonwealth Prize in 2006.

Among his many achievements is the Vita Award for Life Long Contribution to Theatre. In 2000 he was awarded a Medal by the English Academy of South Africa for his contribution to English literature and later received the South African Literary Lifetime Achievement Award sponsored by the Department of Arts and Culture. Most recently, he received the Order of Ikamangha, the nation’s third highest national honour from the State President which recognizes both the excellence of his work and his major contribution to the liberation struggle and to the formation of a just and equitable nation.

In a ceremony after last night’s performance which saw Ronnie and his wife Kay cutting a large birthday cake, television personalities Jailoshini Naidoo and Pat Pillai gave moving accounts of their working relationships with the playwright over the years. Both received major acclaim for their superb performances in his plays 1949 and At The Edge respectively.

The programme features comments from respected luminaries such as Professor Rajendra Chetty, Head of Research at the Cape Technikon: “Govender comes from that place where Olive Schreiner, Doris Lessing and Sol Plaatjie originate,” he states. “Their concern was for life itself, they revelled in their own humanity and revelled against the things that curtailed that humanity, both in their personal lives and their writing.” There is also a quotation from distinguished writer Zakes Mda who acknowledges Ronnie Govender’s The Lahnee’s Pleasure as having had a “great influence” on his own playwriting. Feroze Khan (writer and director of Mahatma vs. Gandhi) asserts that Ronnie Govender taught him “the joy and power of giving.”

The production charts Ronnie Govender’s life and works. The grandson of an indentured labourer, he was born in 1934 in Cato Manor. The title Thunsil is Tamil for mischief-maker and we see the young boy in trouble for stealing mangos and mandarins and ducking Tamil school to the despair of his father and teacher. We are reminded of his attempt to make a bomb which backfired, literally, and permanently lost him the sight of one eye. In between the scenes from the plays are narratives linking his personal and professional experiences.

The cast is made up of top names in the performing arts industry: Kajal Bagwandeen; Rory Booth, Thomie Holtzhausen; Hamish Kyd; Pranesh Maharaj; Sanele Mzinyane; Koobeshan Naidoo, Kumseela Naidoo, Yuvaan Naidoo, Mayuri Naidu, Karthigasen Pillay and Ashwin Singh.

I would have liked to have seen the set a little less cavernous but the lighting design fills the space admirably. I would also have preferred that the spotlights be killed on the actors before they left the stage, making for a better flow of the action.

Thunsil is also performing to schools audiences and it is hoped that these will be well-attended as the production gives an idea of the historical value of Ronnie Govender’s works and should encourage students to increase their acquaintance with his writings.

Having launched his autobiographical account of his life’s experiences with In The Manure last year, Ronnie Govender has just released the novel of his play The Lahnee’s Pleasure and this publication is on sale throughout the run of Thunsil.

Presented by Shah Theatre Academy in association with the Playhouse Company, Thunsil runs in the Playhouse Drama until May 31. Tickets R80 (R100 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) with a discounted price of R20 for scholars under 18 years. Booking is at Computicket. – Caroline Smart