Plenty to cheer about at festival

2008-10-02 08:05

IT seems extraordinary that this is the 15th time I have sat down on a Sunday afternoon to write about the Witness Hilton Arts Festival. What started as a small event, getting by on a wing and a prayer and a small beer tent, has become an institution, and the biggest annual arts event on the KZN calendar.

South African theatre doyenne Janice Honeyman, paying her first visit to Hilton, was full of praise at the opening cocktail party on Thursday. She described festivals as a wonderful way of turning theatre into an event, and allowing performers and audiences to mingle, creating a real sharing and exchange.

Going backstage in a city theatre is now a matter of filling in forms and getting through endless security; at the festival everyone rubs shoulders in the craft market and the food tents. And the atmosphere this weekend was a cheerful one, with a younger crowd than has sometimes been seen - surely a good omen for the future.

As far as the theatrical entertainment went, organiser Sue Clarence's problems with non-appearing lottery money (it only began to trickle through a month before curtain up, leaving no time to use it for this year's shows) had its effect. It meant that there was no real wow- factor piece to anchor the festival. There were plenty of good, experimental works, like Mirror Mirror, Frogs, Brother Number and Gumbo, but there is still a need for a big, solid centrepiece. To an extent, the organisers' hands were tied, but putting a show like The Travellers into a big formal venue was a mistake, fair neither to performers nor audiences.

For me, the pick of what I saw were the moving, meticulously performed Jutro and the witty Bafana Republic, which proves that vicious satire, a sign of a maturing country, is alive and well in the hands of Mike van Graan. And in Lindiwe Matshikiza, daughter of John and granddaughter of Todd, he has found the perfect performer for this kind of work.

Music has become a major component of the festival over the last few years, with Music Revival presenting their series of concerts. Christopher Duigan was upbeat about the size of his audiences, and once again offered a wide selection, something to appeal to all tastes.

You can't write about the Hilton Festival without including a weather report. Year after year, the weather gods have been capricious. On Friday, those brave enough to head for Hilton could have been forgiven for thinking they were at that other arts festival down in the Eastern Cape midwinter. And on Saturday, red faced, perspiring people were staggering about carrying all the layers of clothing they could decently remove. Early yesterday morning, Clarence said cheerfully that it looked as if we would have two good days in a row. But when I saw her again as I came out of the first show of the day under dark clouds and a chilly wind, we agreed she had spoken too soon.

Final figures will only be available later this week, but 75% of the tickets available on the main programme had been sold by Friday morning, with 65% on the Fringe. Those figures always rise during the weekend, so the final tally should be an impressive one. It seems fair to say that, the lottery notwithstanding, Hilton 2007 can be counted a success.

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