Festival is still booming

2008-07-03 00:00

MOVING around the streets and theatres of Grahamstown, you inevitably bump into Sue Clarence and Doreen Stanley, on the lookout for shows that should make the journey to the Hilton Festival in September. They are not saying yet what they have signed up, but there are plenty of shows it would be good to see up here in the warmer parts of the country.

I saw some good work being done in my five days at the Grahamstown Festival. There is very little international input this year — most of what is on offer is local. Some is very local — Witness cartoonist Stidy is exhibiting his political cartoons, sharing exhibition space in Reddits Bookstore with his sisters Sally Scott and Nicky Rosselli. Scott is best known here as a fibre artist, but now she is a Grahamstown resident and is displaying Eastern Cape landscapes in pastel, while Rosselli works in oils. The three siblings are planning another Grahamstown exhibition next year, in a larger venue. We could have arranged something of a Witness reunion, with Stidy exhibiting, former features editor Anthea Garman running the Winter School, and former arts editor Gillian Rennie one of the co-editors of Cue, the festival newspaper.

Other KwaZulu-Natal people there included Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane, who have been Grahamstown regulars for longer than anyone can remember. This year, they have teamed up with Australians Tom Lycos and Stefo Nantsou in Australia vs South Africa, a lively physical comedy about a couple of rambunctious South African rugby fans running into trouble in Australia. Even for non-sporting types (like me), the play was a delight, with enough social comment to make you think, but not enough to stop you leaving the theatre with a silly grin on your face. Kobus Moolman’s two-hander Stone Angel is also having a run, as is Louise Buchler’s Remembering You Like Something I’d Forgotten. And the local university drama department presented The Suitcase Maker which got a positive review in Cue.

As I wrote on Monday, one highlight for me was Dada Masilo’s Romeo & Juliet. Others were Australia vs South Africa; I, Claudia, a poignant story of pre-teen angst in which Susan Danford performs all the roles wearing masks — that would be a great one for Hilton, if available; An African Celebration, the slick concert to celebrate 25 years of the Standard Bank’s involvement; the clever comedy about language The Dog’s Bollocks; and the perambulating, outdoor celebration of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck’s Story.

Not that there weren’t disappointments. Mike van Graan’s second instalment of Bafana Republic is not a patch on the first one and seemed to have a problem identifying its targets. It is also one of many shows that must have been written during Eskom’s little problems. Load shedding is over for now (we hope) and when I left Grahamstown, I felt the time had come to ditch the load-shedding jokes as well. Most of them were never very funny anyway.

Another show that fell flat was Paul Slabolepszy’s new comedy For Your Ears Only. Set in a radio drama studio, it gave the television generation a look into the way a radio show happens from behind the scenes, but even with excellent performances from the likes of Michael Richard, Sibusiso Radebe and Esmeralda Bihl, it never managed to be more than mildly entertaining.

With new people in charge from next year, there are likely to be changes at the National Arts Festival. This year saw the start of Hands on! Masks Off!, a project designed to help artists with the business side of their careers. They were encouraged to attend the free workshops and discussions, and to use them for networking. No session lasted longer than an hour, to allow people to fit them in between their performances or in breaks from their exhibitions. There are plans to further develop this programme in the future.

Despite prophecies of gloom in a depressed economic climate, cautious optimism was being voiced when I left about ticket sales — marginally up on last year at the same stage. I was impressed by the number of young audience members — the days when theatre-goers were middle-aged, while the younger visitors spent their time in the pub seem to be over. Ticket prices, with very few shows costing more than R50, make theatre-going in Grahamstown much cheaper than in most places, although of course the cost of getting there is a major factor. The Fringe was bigger by 70 shows than in 2007, and when I spoke to festival CEO Tony Lankester, he suggested that the time might be coming when the Fringe would have to be split between professional and non-professional fringe. It would be a major step and it is difficult at this stage to see how it would work. It is already hard for Fringe performers, who cannot charge more than big, glitzy productions in the main festival, and still have to cover their expenses.

However, the festival is still a vibrant showcase of South African creativity — and long may it continue to be so.

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