“Disruption”, the buzzword of the moment, is the theme of this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Challenging works grappling with the South African issues of the moment are on offer in abundance, but in reality the festival is also a balm to the soul in troubled times – or, as its PR team puts it, a “light through the gloom”. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Winter in Grahamstown is icy, and this year is no exception. But the cold never deters the small Eastern Cape town from putting its best foot forward to host the annual National Arts Festival. This year, in its 43rd incarnation, posters advertising shows cover every conceivable piece of wall. The programme of events is sufficiently thick and heavy to be used as a formidable weapon. Performers complain that ticket sales are down compared to some years ago, but there are still audiences: generous, enthusiastic audiences willing to give standing ovations at the least provocation.
The beauty of the National Arts Festival is that for 11 days, it is possible to imagine a different kind of society – one where the arts are treated with respect; where people gather to take ideas seriously. There is every sort of idea on offer here, and every sort of show, from explorations of black femininity to wisecracking white male comedians. There is theatre, and music, and art, and dance.
The festival generally takes a while to warm up. Last Thursday, the first official day of the Festival, saw Grahamstown’s streets still largely quiet. But the programme hits the ground running from day one, meaning that early Festival visitors may get the chance to see popular shows in less crowded surroundings.
Causing a buzz in the first days of the festival was What Remains, the latest work by prodigiously talented local playwright and author Nadia Davids. An exploration of Cape Town’s history of slavery, the production tells the story of the discovery of a slave burial ground in the course of an archaeological dig. It is easy to make people think about slavery by confronting them with the horrors of the practice. It is less easy to take Davids’ approach: a subtle perspective which warns of the dangers of failing to reckon with history.
Photo: Dancer Shaun Oelf performs in Nadia Davids’ exploration of Cape slavery, ‘What Remains’ Photo: National Arts Festival
“The young have a strange relationship with the past: they either fetishise it or dismiss it,” one of Davids’ characters comments early on. Davids’ work – characteristically lyrical, and beautifully performed by its four-person cast – urges a more nuanced approach.
A more provocative take on the problems of the past and present is offered by Reparations, a production by Cape Town-based theatre collective Hungry Minds which is certain to entertain and enrage. The year is 2024 in South Africa, and a Supreme Cadre has taken power: a black “womxn” who leaves Julius Malema in the shade when it comes to revolutionary rhetoric.
Welcome to the “new New South Africa”. But the population remains restless, and the Supreme Cadre devises a three-pronged plan to heal the nation. Land reparation without compensation; economic reparation without compensation; and blood reparation without compensation. In a ceremony conceived of as a mordant counterpart to the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, a randomly-chosen white person must sacrifice their life to atone for the sins of the forefathers.
If this sounds dark, it is undeniably so. But it’s also extremely funny: young playwright and director Ameera Conrad has a bright future ahead of her. Her writing is whip-smart, and her vision is brought to life with crackling energy by her equally youthful cast. The production takes satirical aim at practically everyone in South Africa, from accent-shifting faux-revolutionaries to hand-wringing white people, but perhaps its sharpest barbs are reserved for the vapidity of Twitter activists.
(Side-note: in 2024, will Twitter still be the social medium of choice and Cassper Nyovest the premier celebrity of the moment? Reparations asks us to believe that that’s the case, which seems unlikely.)
For those seeking less uncomfortable laughs, You Suck (And Other Inescapable Truths) delivers them by the barrel. Pretina, a hip hop-obsessed schoolgirl played by actress Klara van Wyk, takes the audience on a comical journey of adolescent angst culminating in her reading Desiderata to a dead mouse. If you have teenagers, this is the show to take them to: I watched the production alongside a packed house of school kids who went bananas for it.
One of the international acts at this year’s Festival is British comedian Louise Reay, whose show It’s Only Birds arrives garlanded with awards. Its unique selling point? It’s performed entirely in Mandarin, a language in which Reay is fluent but the audience is not. The show’s conceit is that only 7% of communication is verbal, so it’s unnecessary to understand Mandarin to get what Reay is trying to convey. Reay is very likeable as a performer, but the show requires a high tolerance for both improvisation and audience participation.
Local comedians are also out in force. Watching Loyiso Gola perform in his first Unlearning show of the Festival was a frustrating experience, however.
Gola has flashes of brilliance in which he uses his stand-up as a vehicle for genuinely interesting ideas as well as a source of laughs. A piece in which he compares the version he gives his mother of a boys’ night out to the way in which white people write history: genius. Sharp observations about Africans’ own history as colonisers, and the potential of us all to become “future oppressors”, follow.
But other ideas aren’t nearly as provocative or clever as he thinks they are. A comparison between future attitudes towards incest and current acceptance of gay rights is just dumb, for instance. Beyond that, Gola was clearly under-rehearsed, frequently losing his thread and failing to elaborate convincingly on his stated theme of Unlearning.
Gola now lives in London, and after the National Arts Festival is embarking on a tour of comedy festivals in Canada and Europe. Perhaps he considers a Grahamstown gig too small-fry, these days, to expend his best energies on.
On the dance front, the Cape Dance Company’s Sacredspace provides an intense and visceral experience. At their most powerful when dancing together as a full company, the performers give it their all. While they may occasionally lack the technical virtuosity of more established crews, they more than compensate for it in verve. The principal dancers, as a companion noted, “leave their souls on the dance floor”.
Photo: The Cape Dance Company offer a visceral experience in ‘Sacredspace’. Photo: National Arts Festival
In the first days of the Festival, live music is in shorter supply than will be the case later, with the jazz programme yet to kick in. But there are still gems to be unearthed if you knew where to look: in the form of Indo-Jazz, for instance, which Gauteng-based band the Kinsmen have brought to the Fringe.
The combination of traditional Indian instruments – the sitar and tabla – with a jazz saxophone doesn’t sound as if it should work, but somehow it really does. As a musical project, The Kinsmen is the brainchild of three young Indian-origin men from Pretoria, and their haunting melodies and inventive sounds will stay with you for days.
In a time of political and social instability, an event like the National Arts Festival may seem like a luxury. In reality, it’s more important than ever. Long may it survive. DM
Main photo: The Eastern Cape town of Grahamstown plays host to the 43rd National Arts Festival in 2017 Photo: National Arts Festival