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THE NEW LOOK PLAYHOUSE (article first published : 2006-04-17)

The three-month closure of the foyer of the Playhouse has brought about a most remarkable transformation. The opening of the renovated foyer coincided with the opening night of the recent opera extravaganza Bravissimo - Opera Highlights on March 25.

It was an eye opener. The complex was originally opened in 1986 by the then President of South Africa, P.W Botha, and the premises have remained unchanged since then. Indeed, it had rather deteriorated and was in dire need of a facelift.

The Playhouse is a listed building as well as a national monument and, as such, the exterior has to be maintained. The focus was thus on re-designing the interior. Additional funding specifically earmarked for infra-structural upgrades was granted by the Department of Arts and Culture and, following a public tender, the R4.2 million project was awarded to Durban-based Virtu International Designs in association with Kamanga Properties.

The refurbishment is a two phase process. The first phase, a complete overhaul of the foyers, the Opera Theatre seating and the lighting has been completed and the result is a delight.

I was immediately struck by the plush red carpet throughout the foyer, which gives the theatre a rich welcoming atmosphere and is a delight to the eye- you just canít help but be impressed. This is complemented by the exquisitely mosaiced columns finished in brass, leather and Nguni hide. A major focal point is the larger-than-life beaded artwork created especially for The Playhouse by Ubuhle Beading. The staircase leading up to the Drama Theatre has been retained but is almost unrecognisable in its new plush form, resplendent with a chandelier on the middle level, pure inspiration.

The bars in the lower and upper levels and the coffee counter are much more attractive as are the tables and seating in the eating area. There appears to be more seating room available. There are two very attractive and functional counters in the Opera House foyer with lit tentacles which break the huge expanse beautifully. The press release states that the inspiration for the design came from the Zulu Kraal, the rainbow colours of South Africa and the diverse mix of cultures of KwaZulu-Natal. Be that as it may, the final effect is stunning.

What was particularly interesting are huge photographs of the renovated areas labelled "concept" with smaller photographs illustrating "before" and "after", the latter being remarkably close to the "concept" photographs - a very successful accomplishment. Without the "before" photographs, you might not even recognise how remarkable the transformation.

The complex is now up to the standard of some of the best theatres I have seen in the West End and Broadway, and better than many. Now it is up to the management to ensure that the upkeep of the complex is maintained - and that the paying public respect the asset they have. This has not, unfortunately, always been the case. Maintenance extends to the toilets with attention to details such as ensuring that there are paper towels in the dispensers, sadly sorely lacking in the past.

The same thoughts apply to the material that will be presented in the theatre complex so that it will not just be a "theatre for hire". There have been several new appointments, notably Linda Bukhosini as the Managing Artistic Director who has the passion and ability to achieve the Playhouse Company's dream of making The Playhouse the Broadway of Africa.

The Playhouse Company has a vision of "commitment to artistic integrity and excellence, catering for multi-cultural and diverse audiences and their ever-changing needs." Let's hope that we shall see this beautiful complex with its three fine theatres put to excellent and frequent use.

The scope of phase two of the renovations will cover the Drama Theatre, the Loft foyer and the ablutions and will be completed during the course of this year.

In addition, the public can look forward to the opening of The Zulu Jazz Lounge, formerly known as The Cellar in June this year. The Lounge will feature local talent and play host to top international jazz bands. There is also an African themed cigar lounge, formerly known as The Tudor Room, and Piatto at The Playhouse will be the adjoining Mediterranean restaurant. Ė Maurice Kort




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