Quench your thirsty soul

2008-09-06 00:00

Floss M. Jay

Oh my hat! Less than a week before the next festival for this year. I had a fine time at the Grahamstown Festival. Now, another feast appears to quench the thirsty soul.

It’s a good 25 years since I first darkened the doors of the Grahamstown Festival: a freezing year, staying in Don MacLennan’s house where my bedroom backed the railway line, it was the first year of the Word Fest. Scrumptious servings of words at late-night poetry readings with everyone having a go at being a bard.

At nearly 60, I am firmly in the “MAL” category of festival goer: those Middle-Aged Ladies who frequent, with focus and nostalgia, the wood shavings carpeting the Village Green market, the theatres, exhibition spaces, thin-winter-sun-lit outdoor café tables, minds laced with gluwein … sensibly attired in festival coats, winter boots and socks (or ghastly knee-highs), beanies and pashminas.

We left wintry Pietermaritzburg before dawn, rising up through the Boston hills, peering through a crescent-shaped slice of clear windscreen, unable to persuade my Peugeot that demisting the windscreen was a behaviour it should know. We turned our attention to celebrating each degree centigrade dropped, aiming to make minus 5, which we did as Splashy Fen flashed by.

Who were we? Di, my first flat-mate from university days, my daughter Alice, her best friend Sadie, and me. We were heading for the luxury of my daughter’s digs. Landscapes, wearing their sheer, muted winter colours swept by as we delighted in Peter Ustinov belting out his autobiography from the CD player.

So what if we middle-aged women took 11 hours to drive there and the girls would have done it in nine. We needed our stretch-and-hobble at the petrol stations, as well as the lidded, steaming coffee and yolk-dripping toasted sarmies that only Wimpy knows how to make.

Within minutes of arriving, Di was off to oversee her students’ production, The Suitcase Maker. I unpacked my suitcase and flattened myself out on the bed. Had I known what I learnt the following day when I saw the play, I would have fled up to the Monument to ensure a double chance of experiencing this poignant, breathtakingly gentle production that left me in quiet tears at the predicament of the three lonely characters –— and in touch with the lonely bits of me.

Sensibly we had not over-booked, determined to have time for the market, gluwein, passing friends, restaurants happy with company and unusual food, and

the winter sun. Just as well, because each day brought “have to see” information from the students enthusiastically lapping up what was on offer.

In just four days, we rode bicycles round Africa with Riaan Manser, I struggled to keep myself off the stage and interfering with the therapy process in Psychosis, I wrote a poem about chickens in the freezing Nunnery at a poetry-writing workshop, we were gobsmacked by a very physical dance version of Romeo and Juliet, we agonised with pubescent Claudia as she dealt with her developmental crisis and her father’s marital infidelity, we felt terrible that one of us (not me!) got locked in a very self-indulgent movement piece apparently about coming to terms with the ageing bod, while the rest of us had fortuitously gone off to the wrong theatre, we explored nonsensical xenophobia in a play about SA, Oz and rugby, and I behaved badly at the Sunday late morning College of Whisky where I was assailed by a fit of the giggles and where the presenter definitely had no idea of her comic skills and the three big guys next to me hadn’t come to learn about aromas and blends, but to down as much of the golden fluid as they could lay their hands on! Book launches sprouted like mushrooms, including brave little volumes of poetry that made one hopeful that poetry is not dead.

There were MAMs: Middle-Aged Men frequenting arts festivals, thinning grey hair worn too long, covering fragilely naked scalps, corduroy trousers bagging over diminished bums. Lovely lads, our age of course, enthusiastically supporting each others’ achievements and demonstrating skill at quaffing a “jeri” of Old Brown without actually falling flat on the ground.

What’s it all about? Luxury, certainly; and I am grateful for privilege. Hamlet could help us out: “The play’s the thing wherein to catch the conscience of the King”. Engaging with art, with others’ narratives, leads us to the heart of things, to the heart of ourselves, gives us a space and place and a bit of time to check out the furniture of our souls. We have a chance to review ourselves, to make choices, to develop, to hone our relationships with our contexts.

Not passive indulgence, if we let the stuff in.

Rob van Vuuren “as himself” (also here at Hilton this festival), challenges us to understand the nature of personal and collective reality in theatre while bending us double with laughter and warmth and connectedness, against a backdrop, hilariously painted, of the pathos of life and theatre.

Hilton and Grahamstown are worlds apart in ethos and ambience, but they have in common the substance of art. The literally hundreds of street children dressed and painted as statues with old sweetie boxes at their feet to collect the surplus coins of passers-by in Grahamstown will not be at the Hilton Fest. A very different crowd of children will be there. Either group provides a challenge for whatever individual experiences we may have as we move from offering to offering in the various venues.

Never too late for a dollop of joy! If you can, grab it with all of yourself. I’m going to!

• Floss M. Jay is an erstwhile English and drama teacher and lecturer, and currently a part-time writer and full-time practising psychologist.

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