Theatre interview/review: Dintshitile Mashile talks about directing Boris Vian’s The Empire Builders for The Kwasha! Theatre Company, South Africa, 2021

What: The Empire Builders by Boris Vian

When: February 2021- audio-on-demand – anytime Format: Audio – three episodes – 20 min each Cost: No charge. Donations appreciated Viewing platforms:, IFAS ( and The Market Theatre ( Access: No geo blocking/locking – access from anywhere  

The Kwasha! Theatre Company’s staging of The Empire Builders, by French writer Boris Vian, is going out online from Johannesburg, February 2021 as a binaural audio play. The Empire Builders was written in 1952 and first staged in 1959. It depicts a family in flight in an apartment. The multi-layered text is packed with potent images- fear of death; fear of the other (one’s neighbour?); death, anxiety, entrapment, xenophobia, staircases; the unfathomable. It is text which resonates profoundly as we hunker in down in lockdown – however we can – and with what is at hand. Trying to make sense of it all- real and imagines, mothers fold bed spreads; parents bicker. The neighbour lurks. The anxiety and tension of Vian’s writing is heightened by sound director and music composer Yogin Sullaphen’s highly considered sound design. Dintshitile Mashile’s adroit direction ensures that this is not simply a radio play – with haphazard sound effects -or a staged reading but is a powerful piece which conjures up Theatre of The Mind. Mashile teases out the terrific dark humour in the play. In tandem with the gravitas is chit-chat about the commonplace. This production is a treat to encounter. Listen with earphones. [The Kwasha! Theatre Company is based at The Market Theatre. In its first three years, Kwasha! Theatre company has been nominated for five Naledi Awards and has won awards at the National Arts Festival.]

TheCapeRobyn: How did this production come about?

Dintshitile Mashile: As part of the partnership with The French Institute of South Africa (IFAS), now in its 3rd year, the Kwasha Theatre Company selects a play text by a French writer to present. Initially, we had planned to present it in a theatre. The text was selected in early 2020 but we then decided on an audio presentation when it became clear that touring this piece as a live production would not be possible [in the pandemic].

TheCapeRobyn: Did you adapt the play or have you used Boris Vian’s script as is?

Dintshitile Mashile: We spent part of our process extracting parts of the text from each of the acts. It was imperative to prioritise the relevant issues and themes that spoke to us as a company as well as the South African narrative but most importantly not to add to any of the online fatigue that audiences had been experiencing, by shortening the length of the piece. 

TheCapeRobyn: It is if this play was written now – for our times- a family shuffling from one room to another: “We will end up in a single room – with someone else in it.” And then it segues into chit-chat about beards. Can you talk about performing this play, now in the global pandemic, in lockdown South Africa?

Dintshitile Mashile: The fear of the drastic uncertainties that exist in this day in age, above and beyond the pandemic, is something I found particularly intriguing. And then in contrast to that, the facade of calm and denial that is maintained throughout the piece by Father mirrors the realities the majority of our society is faced with in response to the absurd nature of the current socio-political state of South Africa hence the sudden switch up from fear to eerie yet quite nonchalant beard talk.  Further, the chit chat speaks back to the psychosis of the character/s, at a time in the play when they have lost contact with reality as a result of being stuck (isolated) in the apartment building for so long, leaving them no choice but to confront themselves. 

TheCapeRobyn: Boris Vian lived in Paris during the Occupation and images of occupation come across in the play. He was also referencing French colonialism in the play?

Dintshitile Mashile: Yes, the piece was written about Vian’s childhood experience of the Nazi occupation, and also written at a time when French colonialism in African and Asian territories was coming to an end.   

TheCapeRobyn: The play was performed with costumes and a set, last year [November 2020] at the Market Theatre and an audio recording was made. Was it recorded specifically to be presented as an audio play?

Dintshitile Mashile: The production was recorded explicitly as an audio play. While Kwasha had hoped to stage it as a live performance when the text was selected as the IFAS partnership project for the year, we had to shift our thinking as a result of Covid-19 restrictions. As a director, I felt that the costumes and set would be helpful for the actors and how the world would translate in the audio, so we decided to rehearse and record the play in costume. 

TheCapeRobyn: In staging this as an audio binaural play – can you talk about the sound design and how you worked as a company to heighten the anxiety and tension in the play – placing this play very much as Theatre of The Mind? 

Dintshitile Mashile: It was really key for me to map out the performance on the floor and have the actors blocked like for a traditional play even though the final product was not to be seen but just heard. The choice was made to keep the actors and the mics in one confined setting, as experienced by the characters, by reducing the space on stage and restricting movement inside a cluttered gaffer tape-marked triangular shape resembling each of the apartment rooms. The choice of having the actors engage with the mics in a way that the mics themselves were a character in the room – that of the Shmurz; really heightened the tension and anxiety. We also placed the character Shmurz very close to the mics so that it and the mics were one in the same. Additionally, I had a great deal of support from our sound director and music composer – Yogin Sullaphen, who not only succeeded in making the world come alive by creating sketches that underscored the emotions experienced by the characters but also paid a great deal of attention to the soundscape. 

TheCapeRobyn: In addition to The Empire Builders, what other productions have been staged by The Kwasha! Theatre Company, during lockdown?

Dintshitile Mashile: The company has had the opportunity to work in a variety of mediums in response to adapting to 2020. The year’s projects included: 

The Art of Facing Fear: an award winning live Zoom performance, developed in collaboration with artists from around the world and led by Rodolfo García Vázquez and Ivam Cabral from acclaimed theatre company Os Satyros in São Paulo

Seen Pha kwa JB: a collaboration with SBYA 2020 Jefferson Tshabalala creating a series of video and audio tracks based on Jefferson’s writing with original music compositions by Kwasha the 3rd [an ensemble]. 

The Fluidity of Resistance Online Festival: a digital festival of film work created in isolation under the theme of resistance. The six pieces produced were collaborations between the Kwasha members and the Market Theatre Lab first year students. The Kwasha members directed the pieces. [The festival was a collaboration between The Market Theatre POPArt Theatre.]

Peeling Shadows: A live performance in October 2020,inspired by the pervasive South African Urban Legends that reside in our collective consciousness performed by Kwasha and directed by Joel Leonard. The piece was presented at the Ramolao Makhene Theatre at the Market as the theatre’s first live performance after lockdown [October 2020]. 

TheCapeRobyn: When the month of streaming ends – end of Feb 2021- will The Empire Builders, be available for schools and other institutions? It is a great play to use when teaching?

Dintshitile Mashile: Absolutely. Schools and institutions can arrange the files or listening parties through the Market Theatre Lab. A workshop that speaks specifically to the subject matter and / or vocal delivery (for drama students) is being developed by the Kwasha members as a companion to a schools listening party. 

Additional comment from Marie Fricout, on behalf of the IFAS (The French Institute of South Africa) and its support for The Kwasha! Theatre Company and its audio staging of The Empire Builders, February 2021:

“The IFAS is very pleased to have been following the adventures of The Kwasha! Theatre Company since its beginning in 2018, through a partnership with the Market Laboratory and the Windybrow Art Centre. Indeed it is important for IFAS to support the development of the dramatic arts in South Africa in a meaningful and sustainable way, and the support of a project such as Kwasha! Theatre Company is definitely part of it.  Knowing that the Kwasha! project prioritises professionalisation and artistic quality, it made sense to IFAS to give the opportunity to the company members to be part of a full production that involve other creatives professionals such as set designer, actors coach, light designer and this year a very talented sound designer. At the same time the choice of a francophone dramatic text is also a way to introduce the Francophone dramatic repertoire to the South African theatre industry and its audience.”

The Empire Builders by Boris Vian. The play was performed in [November 2020] at the Market Theatre, by The Kwasha! Theatre Company, with the purpose of creating an audio recording from the staging. Dintshitile Mashile explains: “As a director, I felt that the costumes and set would be helpful for the actors and how the world would translate in the audio, so we decided to rehearse and record the play in costume.” Production photo © Oscar Gutierrez.

❇Photo of Dintshitile Mashile ©Oscar Gutierrez

Related coverage of The Empire Builders, performed by The Kwasha! Theatre Company, South Africa, 2021: