South African theatre is an enthralling, interactive experience – between actors and audience, plots and understanding, stimulus and response. South African plays will make you laugh or sob, gasp or hold your breath. You’ll rage or you’ll swoon, and ultimately you’ll applaud, because South African plays will touch your heart.

Did you know?

Tstotsi, the South African feature film awarded the Academy Award for Best Film in a Foreign Language in 2006, was based on the Athol Fugard novel.

South Africa has a prolific theatre scene, with more than 100 active spaces around the country offering everything from indigenous drama, music, dance, cabaret and satire to West End and Broadway hits, classical opera and ballet. South African theatre tends to be very interactive, with actors sometimes directly addressing audiences.

The country has a long and rich history of storytelling, from the oral narratives and shamanistic dances of the San, to the fables told around the fire by South Africa's indigenous peoples, to the modern and youthful productions of today.

South African theatre came into its own during the apartheid years, partly due to the cultural boycott of the country by British and American actors. Without any external influences, South African theatre flourished with its own unique and local feel, particularly the protest theatre of the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the formal South African theatre tradition dates back as far back as the 1830s, when Andrew Geddes Bains’s Kaatje Kekkelbek, or Life Among the Hottentots, was performed in 1838 by the Grahamstown Amateur Company.

Over the years, playwrights such as Athol Fugard and Gibson Kente would form the backbone of South African theatre. And through their plays, actors such as John Kani and Winston Ntshona became a few of the early participants of a form of theatre that sought to challenge the apartheid system and question racial attitudes of the time.

With mainstream venues like the National Theatre barring black people from creative participation, the Market Theatre in Johannesburg and The Space in Cape Town were just two of many theatres established to give black artists a stage and multiracial audience.

Theatre venues were desegregated in 1978.

Some of the more well-known venues include the Market Theatre, Joburg Theatre and Soweto Theatre in Johannesburg; the Baxter and Artscape theatres in Cape Town; and the Playhouse in Durban.

Many of the casinos and malls in South Africa are also home to theatres. The Montecasino Theatre and Studio has hosted major productions such as Dream Girls and Phantom of the Opera.

Add to that the multitude of festivals that take place across the country, the most well-known of which is the Grahamstown National Arts Festival – the largest festival of its kind in Africa. Over the years, the festival has showcased some of South Africa’s best-performing arts talent, including up-and-coming artists. It has also spawned a multitude of similar festivals such as the Klein Karoo Nasionale Kunstefees in Oudshoorn, and the Mangaung African Cultural Festival (Macufe) in Bloemfontein.

Travel tips & Planning info

Who to contact

Tel: 0861 915 8000

How to get here

Most South African theatres are city- or town-based, and therefore easily accessible by road.

Best time to visit

Theatre is an entertainment mainstay all year long, but do check the local press for visiting shows or shows with great reviews.

Tours to do

Any reputable tour company will be able to advise on 'must-see' theatre shows in all the country's main cities.

Get around

Taxi cabs will be able to collect you and drop you at the theatre door.

What will it cost

The cost of shows differs from theatre complex to theatre complex, and sometimes are even free! Consult each theatre's website, or check with national ticket-seller Computicket.

Length of stay

Bank on an evening, and throw in a dinner and post-show cappuccino too.

What to pack

A shawl or jumper to cover your shoulders during showtime.

What to eat

Some of South Africa's theatre complexes come replete with restaurants and coffee shops offering meals and refreshments. At some, for instance the Barnyard chain, you can even bring your own pre-packed picnic basket.

What's happening

Check out the annual festivals, especially the National Arts Festival, held every winter in the picturesque Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown.

Best buys

Look out for the student productions at the acclaimed University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg – these are oftentimes free to the public.

Related articles