James Ngcobo is one of the most inspirational people you’re ever likely to meet. When the director of Boesman and Lena begins to talk about the work he is doing and his process, he is transformed into a passionate torrent of thoughts and ideas which he sprinkles liberally over an audience.
Ngcobo is resurrecting Boesman and Lena because ‘there is no sell-by date on great theatre’. He believes passionately in the work of Fugard, and argues that every year, the Russians do Chekhov, the Americans resurrect Tennessee Williams, but only here do we have a problem with revering our great writers.
Ngcobo is a self-taught theater afficionado and a man who has done almost everything there is to do on a South African stage. He learned from some of South Africa’s great directors and he is keen to pass on his philosophy of directing.
“The best work is done in rooms where there is joy”, says Ngcobo in another of his tweet-worthy quotes. For this production, he’s working with a dynamite cast of Elton Landrew, Quanita Adams and Charley Azade and believes firmly in the powers of collaboration. “The director is no longer the god in the room, those days are long gone.”
Boesman and Lena is a story that Ngcobo is passionate about. He explains how South Africa has the highest number of immigrants in the world and how critically important it is to deal with the issue. But instead of creating a political drama, he’s used this show to create something personal. “At its heart, Fugard’s classic is a love story. Lena is a dreamer, she wants a better world while Boesman is a pragmatist. He’s wearing an armour of accepting that things cannot change, while Lena just longs for him to hold her,” he explains.
Ngcobo’s directing strength is in the details. He works on touches, small notes that the audience might not even notice but that all add to the integrity and weight of the piece. For instance, Ngcobo observes that Lena, in this production, is Muslim. That’s the kind of thing that may not be on the page, but is significant for the actress who is playing Lena. For Ngcobo, Lena is not simply a homeless woman. She was a daughter once too, maybe a sister. She is not defined by her surroundings alone.
Fundamentally, he operates with a “love of telling stories about the people who I share a land with”. And he knows intrinsically what is that audiences want to see. They don’t need theory, they don’t want care if it’s Dadaism or realism, they just want to see heart and soul on the stage.