How should we treat “the classics”? Even the phrase is an unhelpfully vague one, used (mostly inaccurately) to refer to everything from Ancient Greek drama to Shakespeare, from ballet to opera, from Renaissance paintings to Victorian novels. Generally it is implied that “classics” are part of a western cultural canon — other iconic works usually involve modifiers: Chinese classics, modern classics, Indian classics, minor classics, and so on. Inevitably, and appropriately, South African artists and audiences are uncomfortable about the status of these Western classics that we have partly inherited and partly had imposed upon us. We are hesitant to embrace them, but we also sense that we shouldn’t reject them out of hand. The thing is, they can be difficult; they can be inaccessible and seem irrelevant; they can be ideologically offensive; they can be downright boring; sometimes they can be plain silly. Say you want to stage Verdi’s Aida, which emerged out of a centuries-long operatic...

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