Guest Post: Swan Song Takes Flight

During our conversation with storyteller Buhle Ngaba in 2017, she spoke about winning the Brett Goldin Bursary and creating her show, Swan Song during her time at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Now, almost three years later and after a successful developmental and award-winning run at the Klein Karoo National Festival in 2017, Swan Song has its eyes firmly focused on Vrystaat Kunstefees. Prior to its run, Buhle has launched Going For A Song, an art auction with a difference, making a difference to make art accessible. At the auction which will take place at the Book Lounge on July 1st, bidders will raise funds to get Swan Song on stage in front of a wider audience. On the night, it’ll be chosen at random and announced to guests which items will be up for auction – sold, to the highest bidder! – and which will be raffled. This split is symbolic of what Buhle hopes to do with Swan Song, and her wider body of work: to democratise art in a way that allows accessible participation and an easy buy-in to art that maintains its value. Those purchasing ‘tickets’ will do so at a fixed cost and post them into the “bidding box” beside each artwork to stand a chance to make it their own. In celebration of the upcoming auction, Buhle writes about the evolution of Swan Song

I strongly believe that as artists, we should be constructing the kind of world we believe in while deconstructing elements of a world that no longer serves us. Ultimately, storytelling is about creating human connections.”

I embarked on the journey of Swan Song during my residency at the Royal Shakespeare Company and wrote and developed the piece later in South Africa. I left home with the clear intention to teach whatever I learnt in my time there to students at home, what I didn’t anticipate was that my time there would also result in the beginnings of my first play Swan Song. Directly before I left, I discovered my grandmothers translated version of Julius Caesar by Sol Plaatje, published by Wits Press in 1973. The discovery of this translation began to shift my perspective on the relevance of Shakespeare in South Africa and how it might inspire my own work. The idea that my grandparents had interacted with Shakespeare’s texts in their own home language pre-Bantu education was an exciting and overwhelming thought and suddenly it felt as though a legacy of storytelling had been passed down to me.

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Photo credit: Neo Baepi

I remember spending my first few days in Stratford marvelling at my being there and consistently being aware of my own presence (black young female South African) in an Anglo-Saxon town. The joke here is I had travelled halfway across the world to go to a place where the best actors I had watched had been, but now I had the growing suspicion that I didn’t belong there. I also didn’t know how I would begin to see myself “fitting” into all of it; the town, the people, and the stories. 

I was saved by the Bard himself in an unexpected turn of events; I was asked to perform my Juliet monologue that had resulted in my being awarded the bursary to the company. And so it came to be that the next day I found myself on the Swan Theatre stage where great actors before me have stood, and I, a Setswana speaking girl all the way from the North West South Africa became “Juliet”.

That experience did a lot for my perspective in that I suddenly understood that there was no need for me to continue looking to “fit” into anything because it was all already within me. It was the exchange between my presence on stage and the audience watching that reflected the heartbeat of Shakespeare’s plays. Stories about the human condition that transcend age, sex and class. By the virtue of having lived a real human experience, any person is allowed to tell a great story.. and so, I started to write one of my own.

There is an ancient belief that swans burst into song with their dying breath and the swan song is a symbol of finality, death and closure. While I was at the RSC, I couldn’t help but reflect on how another actor’s passing had resulted in one of the greatest opportunities of my life. I think it was the combination of this fact, my trying to find my place in Stratford and finally discovering that I didn’t need to “fit in” and a lot of personal loss experiences that gave birth to my initial conceptualization around Swan Song. I knew I wanted to create a character that was black, young and raw. A character that we don’t see represented often enough on SA stages, one that came from my home; an often forgotten region of South Africa, the North West.

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Photo credit: Neo Baepi

You can’t make great theatre alone or in isolation and once I got back home, I gathered an incredible all-womxn team; I only ever work with people that I know are better than me and I knew this to be true of my director Ilana Cilliers. We met during our time in Grahamstown, and I was always a huge fan of her work with Ubom! while I was a student. After my third year, I joined the company, and we worked together all year so I knew that her working style complemented my work and that she would pull the absolute best from me for the writing process. The artist behind the wings and anatomical spine chair is Amy Rusch. I’ve known her since high school and have always been a huge admirer of her work. She manipulates plastic in ways that I never believed possible and I consider myself blessed to have her eye and guidance as part of the work. Recently, we started working with Sitaara Stodel in growing our visual landscape by incorporating video art created specifically for Swan Song. I saw her work at Cape Town Art Fair last year, was immediately obsessed and decided to ask her if she might be willing to venture into the theatre space. 

Swan Song was initially performed in a container at the Klein Karoo National Festival. The space allowed us to create a rich and multilayered theatrical experience where art, narrative and spatial politics collided. Bringing together all of these elements creates a space where transformative dialogue can take place. We are so incredibly excited to be opening it in theatres, the first up being at Vrystaat Festival in Bloem. 

In the show, the character wrestles with metaphors of death, love and their physical manifestations. She weaves between past and present, working through her memories as physical labour en-pointe. She remembers the past and allows it to play out as the present on stage thereby establishing the significance of past memories. Set in a tiny flat in what could be present-day Johannesburg, the character is born with a winged scapula that becomes a symbol of her constant struggle with her sense of belonging.


Swan Song will run at the Vrystaat Kunstefees for 3 performances only from July 5th-6th. For tickets, click here.

Additional information on Going For A Song can be found at the end of this article.

All photos featured in this essay were taken by Neo Baepi and provided with permission by Buhle Ngaba.

Special thanks to Kanya Viljoen.

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