The story of an African festival

2011-07-11 10:20

Small children in white face make-up stand on corners hoping for some change, while others offer an ­impromptu performance for 50c.

The National Arts Festival, which ends today in the Eastern Cape ­university town of Grahamstown, represents a bonanza to all sorts of people in different ways.

The most obvious is for a visitor like me who gets to immerse herself in ­culture – seeing three, four, five shows a day.

Dashing from Gregory Maqoma’s mesmerising contemporary dance piece, Desert Crossings, to ­Martin Koboekae’s funny and shocking Last Pro in Yeoville.

Then there’s the cross-town dash to another theatre to see Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre Neil ­Coppen’s ground-breaking Abnormal Loads.

Then it’s off to one of the town’s coffee shops for a debrief session.

Day 2 starts with a laugh as Gaetan Schmid explains how all of us speak volumes without saying a word.

Body Language, during which he explained how to interpret the crossed arms, thumbs up and ear-tugging of others, came in handy at a couple of the Think! Fest panel sessions at the festival.

Especially the one on funding the arts that Arts and Culture Minister Paul Mashatile blew off.

The minister attended the Durban July instead and you don’t need a body language ­lecture to work out his message, ­although in the end director-general Sibusiso Xaba was a better man for the job.

Perhaps one of the most hard­hitting pieces on the bill, Purgatorio, is about two souls in purgatory who have to forgive each other to find redemption.

Inspired by the blood-soaked Greek tale of Jason and ­Medea, this two-hander gob-smacked the audience and when it ended, ­everyone seemed wrung dry of emotion by the powerful performances.

Thankfully the next show, Sylvaine Strike’s The Table, included some ­welcome comic relief.

Over a glass of glühwein, it became clear that there was a common thread running through a number of shows.

It seems that storytellers are incorporating the past but not getting ­quagmired in it. Instead they are seeking a new, shared identity for South Africans.

This is most evident in Abnormal Loads, which tells the story of three families – one Zulu, one English and the other Afrikaans – in a small ­fictional battlefield town in KwaZulu-Natal.

While the older generation seems more concerned with the past, the new generation uses it only as a reference point.

This theme of a new, shared identity also came through in FTH:K’s Benchmarks.

The Cape Town-based company works with deaf performers and makes their work accessible to the deaf by eschewing the spoken word.

A theatre trend they are incorporating as their own is the use of masks. So with no words and no facial ­expressions, the cast of three brings to life characters from divergent ­backgrounds.

Another Capetonian outfit making good use of body language to tell ­stories is Cape Town Edge. The duo’s ­Mafeking Road gave Herman Charles Bosman a physical theatre twist.

By the halfway mark, the head of the festival, Tony Lankester, said sales were up 6%.

“The combined Main and Fringe attendance is up firmly over both the 2010 and 2009 figures.”
Good news not only for arts lovers and practitioners, but for the people of the region too.

All the tickets for the festival’s Fringe are half-price today.

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