Stages, saints and sinners: Welcome to the National Arts Fest

2011-07-04 08:43

Turn there, right behind that donkey wearing the American flag.

We’re in Grahamstown.

It’s cold, the wind is whipping our hair across our eyes, the pavements are full, the roads fuller.It feels as though there’s a carnival in town.

And in a way there is: the National Arts Festival brings together artists and arts lovers, revellers, critics and the curious – all to the church-heavy university town.

After a rather bizarre hotel key incident I won’t bore you with, we got cracking with our first exercise – lunch. Delicious Italian food at La Trattoria, always a bit of a surprise to get really good food and service out of the metros but that’s probably big city snobbery.

After stoking up on pasta and crostini we headed for Gregory Mqoma’s Desert Crossings.It’s a contemporary dance piece he choreographed with the help of British money because sadly he is better cared for professionally by foreigners than here at home.

The piece is a representation of memory both of place and people, taking as its inspiration the Jurassic Coast in England and Namibia’s Skeleton Coast.

Contemporary dance does need quite a lot of decoding for the uninitiated but the only way to get better at reading its messages is to check it out. After the dancers took their final bows we bolted for the car to get to our next appointment – we almost missed it in a continuation of the strange hotel key incident.

Which would have been a pity because Last Pro In Yeoville is a keeper. Written and directed by Martin Koboekae, the play is about a trio of characters in Yeoville whose lives intersect in strange and surprising ways.

Billie (Seputla Sebogodi) is a writer who no longer writes but is trying his hand at painting; his flatmate, Poiho (Lunga John Radebe), plays his horn but doesn’t seem to do much else and Camelia (Onida Cowan) is an ageing white prostitute.The story unfolds wittily, a sobering exploration of the horrors of walking the streets, but at the same time a chance to look into the lives of these three people – but it is what connects two of them that will give you a shock.

The play suffers a little because of the makeshift venue and I’d like to see it on a Market Theatre stage, polished a bit and with the multiple endings shaved away.Also, the actors smoke cigarettes for authenticity but in the claustrophobic venue, for a rabid smoke-hater like me, it was torture to passively smoke half a packet.

If you are lucky enough to be here, Last Pro in Yeoville is on at 7pm at the Gymnasium.

More than worth the R48 ticket price.

With just enough time to slug back a warming glass of red wine before the next show I realised we needed to up our game as a colleague whipped out a wad of tickets for shows that made our stack look lazy. But she had no time to eat, or sleep or indeed do that other thing – imbibe atmosphere, which is very important.

Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre Neil Coppen’s Abnormal Load is superb.Three families unload the burdens of their families’ selective memories of the past and present.

Set in a small town where the famous battlefields of South Africa intersect, the multimedia drama is a microcosm of our society – these characters are all someone you’ve met, worked with, had a braai with or indeed, are.

Coppen says he is a frustrated filmmaker and that comes through in all his work, in which he makes use of filmic devices.

This gives this play the sensibility of an epic, a sweeping family saga that takes in the stories of generations, moving back and forth in time as it tells the stories of the people who have lived in the fictional town of Bashford.

Last year Coppen spent three months living in Dundee, KwaZulu-Natal, as part of a project entitled 2010 Reasons to Live in A Small Town, an experience that is brought to bear on this ambitious piece, which shows the 30-year-old’s gift for observation, for distilling character and for storytelling.

Do what you have to but hustle a ticket if you’re in town and if not, hold thumbs that this one’s doing a national tour. It should.Abnormal Load is on at 8pm at the Rhodes Theatre.

Such profundity deserved to be decoded with glühwein – also helps with the cold – and a kudu burger – how could we resist?The game meat seems to be on every menu in town...curry, burgers, steaks. 

Why? I don’t know, but I will find out. Watch this space for the next instalment, which includes Sylvaine Strike’s The Table, Ariel Dorfman’s Purgatorio and a walkabout of Standard Bank Young Artist for Visual Art Nandipha Mntambo’s Faena. And an explanation of all the kudu on the menu.

Follow me on Twitter @GayleMahala
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