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St Stephen's Dutch Reformed Church
Cape Town, Western Cape

Date:1799 : 1839
Type:Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk - Church
Status:Extant
Street:Riebeek Square

 


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Coordinates:
33°55'17.30" S 18°25'02.92" E Alt: 38m

Originally the African Theatre also called Die Ou Komediehuis

Governor Sir George Yonge had realized the necessity for building a theatre for the entertainment of both the garrison and the public. According to the writings of Lady Anne Barnard, it was an idea that took much of his attention and he literally sat and watched the building rise from the ground.

The African Theatre opened in 1801 with a performance of Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part One. Mrs Somers wrote an opening address to Apollo, which was spoken by her husband Dr Somers of the Military Hospital. 'It was too fine for anyone to understand it' was Lady Anne Barnard's comment, continuing her caustic criticism, 'As for the play itself, the piece was a dull one . . .The Doctor thought he shone as Falstaff, we did not agree with him.'

At the time of the Second British Occupation the troops took over the theatre almost entirely. Thomas Sheridan, the consumptive son of Richard Brinsley Sheridan, helped the enthusiastic amateurs with their productions. However, by 1839, the African Theatre was sufficiently out of demand to be sold to the Dutch Reformed Church as a church for newly freed slaves, and before long the old building was in use during the week as a school and during weekends as a church and Sunday school.

The only church in this denomination [Dutch Reformed] to be named after a saint, it seems the name was derived from the fact that the building was stoned by dissatisfied slaves whilst a service was in progress (St Stephen being the first martyr to be stoned to death). But to this day the congregation still call it 'Die Ou Komediehuis'.

The auditorium, described as lavish, was approached up a flight of steps beneath a columned portico. Thibault was Inspector of Buildings at the time the theatre was built and his influence can be seen in the sophistication of the design overlaying the tradition of the Cape.

When the building became a church, the classical portico was demolished to make way for a neo-Gothic door and windows. This century the Old Theatre was threatened with demolition more than once, before it was declared a National Monument and partially restored.

(Picton-Seymour, 1989: 23)

Transcription of the Historical Monuments Commission plaque:

ST. STEPHENSKERK
Hierdie gebou was die eerste skouburg in Kaapstad
gestig met die steun van die Goewerneur
Sir George Yonge in 1799. Dit is op 15 November
1800 geopen en tot 1836 as 'n skouburg gebruik.
In 1839 is dit omgeskep in 'n kerk en 'n skool
en in 1857 het dit onder beheer van die Sinode
van die Nederduitste Gereformeerde Kerk gekom.

Historiese Monumente-Kommissie

ST. STEPHEN'S CHURCH
This building was the first theatre in Cape Town,
sponsored by the Governor Sir George Yonge in
1799. It was opened on the 15th November 1800 and
used as a theatre until 1836. It was converted to a
church and school in 1839 and in 1857 came under
the control of the Dutch Reformed Church Synod.

Historical Monuments Commission


Writings about this entry

Fletcher, Jill. 1994. The Story of South African theatre 1780-1930. Cape Town: Vlaeberg. pg All
Fransen, Hans. 2004. The old buildings of the Cape. A survey of extant architecture from before c1910 in the area of Cape Town - Calvinia - Colesberg - Uitenhage. Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers. pg 34
Greig, Doreen. 1971. A Guide to Architecture in South Africa. Cape Town: Howard Timmins. pg 91-92
Hartdegen, Paddy. 1988. Our building heritage : an illustrated history. South Africa: Ryll's Pub. Co. on behalf of the National Development Fund for the Building Industry. pg 50
Hoevers, Jan. 2012. Geskiedkundige kerke : 'n Gids tot 50 tradisionele kerke. Pretoria: Kontak-uitgewers. pg 41-42
Laidler, P[ercy] W[ard] . [1933]. Tavern of the ocean, A : Being a social and historical sketch of Cape Town from its earliest days.. Cape Town: Maskew Miller. pg opp 113 ill
Picton-Seymour, Désirée. 1989. Historical Buildings in South Africa. Cape Town: Struikhof Publishers. pg 23
Rennie, John for CPIA. 1978. The Buildings of Central Cape Town 1978. Volume Two : Catalogue. Cape Town: Cape Provincial Institute of Architects. pg 61 item 48.1