St Stephen's Dutch Reformed Church
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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:
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