Festival highlights

2011-07-18 00:00

FROM classical ballet to contemporary dance, comedy to intense drama, this year’s National Arts Festival main programme delivered plenty of quality.

Aside from Neil Coppen’s ­superb Abnormal Load ­— which is reviewed on this page — I was, during my six-day sojourn in a wet and windy Grahamstown, able to indulge my love of theatre and dance with a number of very different shows.


One of my undoubted festival highlights was the Cape Town City Ballet’s stunning Swan Lake.

This production was quite simply sumptuous, boasting exquisite sets and costumes, and stunning performances by Megan Swart in the twin roles of Odette and Odile, and Xola Putye as Prince Siegfried. Swart clearly defines the two roles — her white swan is all grace and innocence, while the black swan is coquettish and alluring. Putye, meanwhile, was both a wonderfully supportive partner, and a gifted soloist.

Their performances were backed by the dramatic portrayal of the villainous Von Rothbart by Johnny Bovang, and a scene-stealing turn by Tusile Tenza as the court jester. And underpinning it all was Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music, performed by the KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Naum Rousine. All in all, a rare and beautiful treat.


Batsumi, choreographed by Thabo Rapoo, meanwhile, is a mix of contemporary and African dance, which is used to tell the story of a village of hunter gatherers.

The dancers perform to the accompaniment of a live band — made up of Isaac Molelekoa (keyboard), Neo Thekiso (violin), Betheul Rametsi (violin) and Rapoo (percussion) — and makes use of an open space, the only props being some traditional ukhamba and baskets.

I was impressed by the strength of the dancers and the energy of the piece, but ultimately, I found it a bit repetitive, and the very open nature of the stage area distracting, whenever the dancers moved off stage. These small gripes, aside, I thought it an intriguing new work.


On the drama side, I was blown away by the riveting two-hander Purgatorio, written by Ariel ­Dorfman, and starring Dawid Minnaar and Terry Norton.

The play is loosely based on the Greek tragedy of Jason (of the Argonauts fame) and his wife, ­Medea, who kills their children when Jason abandons her for another woman. Using a very metallic, clinical set, and simple props like a hospital bed and chair, the two actors alternate in the roles of patient and medical professional.

Their characters, titled simply man and woman, are in purgatory, and unable to move on until they come to terms with what they did when they were alive. The problem is, they are unable to forgive either themselves or each other.

Adding to this sense of a couple caught in a never-ending spiral of blame and self-loathing, is the screening of blurred images, some bloody, behind the hospital bed.

Purgatorio is theatre of rare quality and power, and the performances given by Minnaar and Norton are, quite simply, jaw-droppingly good.


Another festival favourite was ­Pieter Toerien’s The History Boys. Alan Bennett’s wonderful play tells the story of a group of mostly working-class students, who are being prepared for their Oxford and Cambridge entrance exams, and the teachers who help them.

Directed by Alan Swerdlow, it stars former midlands resident, Graham Hopkins, as the world-weary English master, Hector, who is a little too fond of his students; Michael Richard as the bombastic head teacher, keen to move his school up the education-league tables; Louise Saint-Claire, as the under-appreciated history teacher; and Theo Lande, as the man brought in to help the boys get into university.

The students are all well cast, although their accents had a tendency to wander a bit. Even so, special credit must be given to Clyde Berning as the arrogant Dakin; Roberto Pombo, who is well cast as Posner, the young gay man in love with Dakin; and Asher Stoltz as Rudge, the boy no one expects to make it, who finds his classes bewildering at times.

The History Boys is packed full of witty one-liners, but also has much to say on the subject of the true meaning of education, and in particular, the subject of history and how it should be taught. Being a huge Bennett fan, I was was thrilled to be able to see this production, and should it make its way to KwaZulu-Natal in the coming months, my advice would be: don’t miss it, because it’s a gem.


Another highlight was the deeply moving Benchmarks, written by former Pietermaritzburg resident, Rob Murray, and staged by A Conspiracy of Clowns and FTH:K, the country’s leading deaf-theatre company.

Using wonderfully expressive masks, gestures and body language, Liezl de Kock, Daniel Robinson and Thumeka Mzayiay bring to life three lost souls — an aging actress reliving her glory days, a timid middle-aged clerk, and a Zimbabwean refugee in search of a home and work. They are drawn into a relationship, which is both unlikely and unexpected, and sets them on a journey that ultimately leaves them changed forever.

The characters never say a word, and yet you feel their despair, frustration, anger, and pain — a tribute indeed to the actors who portray them. I was moved to tears by a scene of xenophobic violence against Mzayiay’s refugee character, and equally by the scene in which the aging actress dances with a man — perhaps her husband, or a former lover, who knows. Benchmarks is a wonderful work and, given the chance, I’d watch it again.

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