African Theatre Becomes European Success

By David SouthDevelopment Challenges, South-South Solutions


In Britain, the country that gave the world the plays of William Shakespeare (, a new creative force has taken stages by storm: African theatre.  And it is proving how economically rewarding Southern culture can be.

“African theatre is very eclectic and very narrative driven, which I think appeals to audiences.  Here (the United Kingdom) it’s very much more reflective and intellectual,” director Nick Kent told The Independent newspaper.

Over the last decade, the world’s creative industries have gained greater recognition as an important spark that can drive economic development and entrepreneurship. World exports of creative products were valued at US $424.4 billion in 2005 as compared to US $227.5 billion in 1996, according to UNCTAD figures. It has grown by 8.8 percent a year between 1996 and 2005 (UNCTAD).

In Germany, more than 35 million people go to almost 110,000 theatre performances – not including opera and ballet – every year. That’s almost half the population.

The creative economy is seen as a fast growth area and good job creator, and importantly, a lynchpin of cultural identity and diversity. While the creative economy flourishes in North America and Europe, Southern countries are still not reaping its full benefits. Despite their cultural diversity and richness, out of 132 developing countries, 85 have never produced a commercial film.

UNESCO, through its Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity, has been in the forefront of helping African countries re-shape their policies to take this into consideration. The promotion of cultural industries also has been incorporated into the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD).

Kent, the artistic director of London’s Tricycle Theatre, believes the popularity of African theatre is a product of its vibrancy and the fact both music and stories’ narratives engage with difficult topics.

“Since the apartheid era (in South Africa), African theatre has been more engaged socially,” continues Kent. “South Africa has managed to capture music and storytelling.”

Nigeria’s Nobel Prize-winning playwright Wole Soyinka packed Britain’s National Theatre recently by tackling tensions in colonial Nigeria in his play Death and the King’s Horseman. Another Nigerian play is Iya-lle (The First Wife), about a chief’s preparations for his wife’s 40th birthday. It runs at London’s Soho Theatre.

Yet another success is a re-telling stories from the Bible called The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso — by the South African theatre company Isango Portobello. It was such a huge success when it first appeared on London’s stages in 2002, it will be returning in September.

One way companies in countries like Britain use to introduce audiences to new cultures and creative experiences is to run a special ‘season.’ In April, London’s Tricycle Theatre began a season of 12 plays about Afghanistan by a variety of writers. They were divided into half-hour mini-plays that could be seen in parts over several evenings or in a weekend marathon of 12 plays.

The project was so successful that the Tricycle is starting a South Africa season, beginning with the play Karoo Moose, an award-winning story about a girl’s struggle to survive in a village with the help of an escaped moose. Another play in the season is Koos Sas: Last Bushman of Montagu, a musical about a heroic rebel.

West Africa features in the play The Observer, also at London’s National Theatre. It tells the story of an election observer forced to rubber-stamp the victory of a corrupt president. Lost in the Stars, a musical adaptation of the novel Cry, the Beloved Country – a global success in the 1940s – explores racial tensions in apartheid South Africa and runs at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

“African theatre addresses issues of identity and conflict,” said Dr .Yvette Hutchison, who lectures in African theatre at the University of Warwick.”Because of its history, there is much to explore. “European theatre became very intellectual and rational after the Enlightenment. African theatre remains spiritual and metaphysical. There is also less formality – the audience expects to contribute.”

The fresh perspective brought by African theatre is its appeal.

“I do think people have become tired of formulaic music in theatre,” said the British-born South African director of The Mysteries, Mark Dornford-May.

“African culture will incorporate, for example, Mozart and a work song, and perceive them as equally valid, or perhaps favour the work song. There’s also a lot of physicality. The audience expects to be engaged. In Europe you sit in your seat and don’t have contact with anyone and you may as well be watching a DVD. There’s a sense of excitement in African theatre and exuberance of performance.”

Published: July 2009


The British Council sponsors numerous awards for international creatives. Website:

Creative Clusters: Creative Clusters is an independent policy conference examining the growth of the creative economy. It is interested in initiatives from around the world that are designed to have an impact in both cultural and economic terms.   Website:

Iroko Theatre Company: The theatre uses traditional African theatre art forms to explore social issues that are of interest to children and young people and in doing so help them to experience new cultures and art forms.

A BBC story on the success of African theatre. Website:

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.

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© David South Consulting 2022

By David South Consulting

David South Consulting is an international development media and consulting service. Designing human development and health. Editor and writer of Southern Innovator.



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