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Past/Present/Future for … David Kramer

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David Kramer started his career as a singer/songwriter in his native South Africa, performing satirical songs at folk clubs and campus concerts in the early 1980s. He sang in English and Afrikaans and, when he released his first album Bakgat! in 1980, it was banned for its political message. Despite getting no airplay initially, Kramer received a strong response from audiences and by the mid 1980s had been awarded ten gold records and one platinum for sale of his albums.

In 1986, Kramer teamed up with fellow singer-songwriter Taliep Petersen, with whom he wrote six musicals, including Kat and the Kings, Poison and Spice Drum Beat - Ghoema, all of which had their UK premieres at north London’s Tricycle Theatre. The first subsequently transferred to the West End and on Broadway, and won two 1999 Olivier Awards, for Best New Musical and Best Actor in a Musical (awarded to the entire company). It was while Kramer was in London for the third that Petersen, having just flown back to South Africa after opening night at the Tricycle, was murdered in his Cape Town home after armed robbers broke in and took him and his entire family hostage (See News, 18 Dec 2006).

Kramer has now returned to the Tricycle with the first musical he has written independently, Koos Sas: Last Bushman of Montagu, which centres on the notorious and infamous Khoisan, Koos Sas, who in 1917 was accused of murdering a shopkeeper in Montagu. Shot as an outlaw, he was the last of what the authorities deemed the 'bushmen robbers' of the previous century.

Written, directed and composed by Kramer, Koos Sas won the De Kat Herrie Award and the Skouerklop Award for best musical contribution in South Africa. The South African cast, who reprise their roles, are Loukmaan Adams, Jody Abrahams (both of whom previously starred in Kat and the Kings in London), Natalie Cervati, Nicholas Ellenbogen and Robert Koen.

PAST: We had been running Kat and the Kings in South Africa for awhile, we’d been up to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and had already finished our tour. I think one of Nicolas Kent’s friends bumped into him and told him there’s a nice little musical in South Africa that would be suitable for the Tricycle. We were lucky. I there might have been a cancellation in the Tricycle’s schedule and there was suddenly a six-week gap. We were sitting one afternoon in Cape Town when the telephone rang and Nick invited us to come over to London. We were quite amazed at the strong reaction to the show. Within a few days, there were West End producers coming to see it and talking to us about the possibilities of transferring. It was all very unexpected for me, sort of a Susan Boyle moment I suppose.

Going to London in 1996 with Kat and the Kings was a turning point. Certainly, it enhanced our reputation in South Africa and internationally. We continued to tour that musical for the next ten years, in Europe and in America as well.

And it was the beginning of a relationship with the Tricycle. I really liked the theatre and I liked what Nick was doing in terms of bringing in multicultural initiatives and also work with quite a political edge. After Kat and the Kings, Taliep Petersen and I brought Poison and Spice Drum Beat - Ghoema to the Tricycle. I was also invited to perform with my band.

I knew Taliep for a long time and we started working together in 1986. We were both songwriter-performers, not people who write for theatre, but our first attempt to write, a musical about forced removals called District Six, was a huge success in South Africa and it set the ball rolling for us. We continued to work together because it was a useful way of exploring the circle of coloured people, whose stories hadn’t been told in the theatre yet. And I just found that with writing musicals, as opposed to just writing songs, it was great to have a partner. We had a happy relationship collaborating for 20 years.

It was in 2006 when we were having the European premiere of Ghoema at the Tricycle that Taliep was murdered. He left London on a Wednesday and on Friday he was dead. I was still in London and it was Nick who brought the news to me. That was a shock and it took a long time to absorb the new reality that I found myself in. It took me about six months to be able to sit down and think about what I could do in paying some kind of tribute to Taliep. I then started to listen to all of the songs we had written together. There were over 200 songs, a lot of material and it was emotional, very difficult, particularly when I’d find recordings of his voice. I then put together a show called The Kramer/Petersen Songbook which we then staged at the Baxter Theatre at the end of 2007 almost a year after his murder.

PRESENT: I started working on Koos Sas: Last Bushman of Montagu while Taliep was alive, in terms of writing some songs around this character and this theme. It wasn’t something that Taliep was particularly interested in. It was much more to do with the world that I come from. Taliep was from Cape Town and that is where he felt completely at home. I come from outside of Cape Town and so a lot of my work reflects that environment and those people.

I stumbled across the story of Koos Sas in 1992. I was shocked when I saw that this man’s skull was on display in the Montagu museum. That started me thinking about him and I wrote a song. A few years later I wrote another song that was sort of about him, and a few years later I wrote another song. And then I started to do some research. So this musical was a long time in the making.

After I completed The Kramer/Petersen Songbook, I moved on to resurrecting this musical again. As Taliep is no longer here, I’ve done it on my own. It’s a different process and a different kind of musical to what I would have perhaps written with Taliep. I was invited to do a festival and I used that opportunity to develop Koos Sas into the full-length musical which it is now today.

Nick heard about it and said, why don’t we do it as part of this little South African festival at the Tricycle? I said, the only problem is that it is all in Afrikaans. He said we can just do it with surtitles. I had another opportunity to stage it recently in the Cape and that’s the production that is coming to the Tricycle. It has the translation projected onto the set and it all seems to work well. It works better than I expected.

I think the interest UK audiences have in South African work comes from quite a long time ago. Because of the political turmoil in my country, there was quite a lot of focus from London on what was happening in South Africa. Theatre was a way of bringing those stories to London and explaining them. South African connections were established particularly with the Tricycle theatre, which has continued. Now I know South Africa doesn’t have the same level of attention anymore in terms of political turmoil – that focus has changed to the Middle East – but the stories we’re telling now are not just political in nature, they are broader South African stories. Why would London be continue be interested in that? I suppose because it’s such a diverse society: the first world and the third worlds bump up against each other every day in South Africa.

FUTURE: I don’t have anything that I am intending to do in the near future in terms of musicals. I have some ideas which I would like to tackle. I think that, with musicals, collaboration is a very good way to go. In the meantime, I’ve written a play - with no songs - as a challenge and I’m hoping to have that stage at some point. It’s a Holocaust play called Freedom of Children. It’s set in Czechoslovakia where the Nazis incarcerated intellectuals and families in this fortress town,Terezin, which was also called the family camp. I’ve written the play about some of the children who were there, about their incarceration and subsequent murder. It’s sort of a love triangle amongst the teenagers.

It’s a huge departure for me. In some ways, it’s quite difficult because people have an idea of who I am and what I write about. I’ve developed a very strong identity in South Africa over the years for doing work which is very much based on Cape Town or South African stories. So to do something set in Czechoslovakia during the Second World War doesn’t sound possible. That has been a big challenge for me and I’ve been very excited to tackle that. It now remains to be seen what audiences will think of it.

- David Kramer was speaking to Terri Paddock

Koos Sas: Last Bushman of Montagu receives its British premiere on 16 July 2009 (previews from 14 July) at the Tricycle Theatre, where it continues until 1 August as part of this summer’s South African season.


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