Theatre festival - a recipe for success

2007-02-01 00:00

The Musho Theatre Festival of one- and two-person plays, which finished on Sunday means a lot of travelling for Martizburgers wanting to take much of it in but it would be a shame to be put off by that. Themi Venturas and Pansa have a recipe for success here, and as the longest piece ran for only an hour and a quarter, it is perfectly possible to get there and back without a late night. Pity about the weather some evenings but we are talking KwaZulu-Natal summer here.

I took in three of the main shows, although I didn't have a chance to see any of the seven fringe offerings. But it can only be good news that there is a platform for young performers and writers to experiment on - and draw a respectable audience.

Illa Thompson of Pansa was upbeat on Friday evening when I saw her at the Kwasuka Theatre for Greig Coetzee's The Blue Period of Milton van der Spuy. Attendance at the various shows had been pretty good - there might even be a small profit from this year's Musho, although final figures were obviously not available. She was particularly pleased with the fringe - good work coming from new talents, which bodes well for the future of KwaZulu-Natal theatre.

The festival kicked off with one of the two overseas shows - Exile at Home from the Arab-Hebrew Theatre Organisation in Israel. Performed by two Israeli actresses, one Arab and one Jewish, it took the form of two monologues (three if you count the third performer who appeared on a video backdrop) rather than a dialogue, on the subject of exile and barriers.

The main characters were an Israeli woman living in Berlin - the city her father was born in - and working as a tour guide. Her childhood, with its German influences (including the hair-raising children's horror book, Struwelpeter) separated her from her Israeli peers; her life in Berlin is weighed down with Jewish history. The other is an Arab man, employed as a labourer on a kibbutz that was once his own farm. He asks for little but gets less. The idea behind the piece was good, a reminder, as one of the characters remarks, that every wall has people on the other side. However, structurally it was incoherent, partly because it had been turned into a two-person piece from one with three actresses. Having the third one there on video simply did not work.

Reports of the other visiting show, the Dam Theatre Company from Holland's Shrimps, were also disappointing. South Africa, where making theatre is such a precarious business and so seldom supported by state or even quasi-state funding, places a heavy demand for innovative thinking from its practitioners which, at its best, can lead to work of a high order. And festivals like Musho, run on a shoestring but cleverly packaged and presented as an event, offer a good way of getting it out there. We have no need to cringe culturally before the overseas offerings.

The second piece I went to was Janet van Eeden's Expletive Deleted, directed by Ian Roberts and featuring Thomie Holtzhausen. Van Eeden takes her own experience of working on the South African Big Brother to give her character a back story - he worked there as a secret “spy”, vetting the employees' e-mails to make sure they never let any cats out of the bag. His experience as a human firewall leads to him being employed in a nameless government department to vet e-mails. But he's a man on the edge of cracking up - his mother drives him mad by packing his lunch and phoning him at work to make sure he has an umbrella. And when his boss, about whom he fantasises, asks him to lift the firewall on her e-mails, he finds out things that tip him over. Holtzhausen gives a strong performance and if the ending stretches the bounds of credibility to breaking point - well, so does Big Brother. Just think of the shenanigans on the current British series of the so-called celebrity Version.

And, for my own pleasure, I ended my Musho experience with The Blue Period of Milton van der Spuy. It has long been one of my favourites among Greig Coetzee's work, up there with Johnny Boskak and White Men with Weapons, although it has never achieved the same amount of public response. Coetzee has just come back from a month in Miami, which he says is almost as hot as Durban, though probably not as bad as the Kwasuka at the moment, which has had the air-conditioning units stolen and was nicknamed the Kwasauna for the duration of the festival. He was performing both Milton and White Men in Florida and both were very well received.

Milton is as moving as ever - a poignant tale of an absurd and sad individual whose struggle to become a creative artist is bedevilled by his “talents lying elsewhere”. The story of his life as it unfolds is funny and shocking - and cleverly and gently revealed. Coetzee is no longer a KwaZulu-Natal resident, but he honed his talent here, and he is one of our finest playwrights and performers.

Let's hope the Musho festival continues for many more years; it fills a gap in the theatre calendar, coming in the month when many theatres are dark. And after the big, glitzy pre-Christmas shows, the smaller, and often more inventive, works offer a reminder of where theatre's roots lie.

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