I HAVE a most gorgeous addiction: I cannot get enough of theatre. I’m a festival junkie. A standing ovation addict.
Every time the lights dim, which at an arts festival can be in a school hall, a church hall, and rarely a concert hall (arctic cold or hellfire hot), my body shivers with excitement.
Because I know something new is about to happen to me. The players on that stage will take me to places I have never been.
I’ve always thought that some theatre is made for masochists: we go in knowing we’ll be hurt, shocked, our emotions pulled hither and thither, our hearts broken and our souls transformed.
Yet we go because we seek new worlds. New ways of seeing, hearing, thinking, feeling.
Makhanda has changed me
Covid-19 devastated the arts, but in the years since never-say-die creators have been slowly getting back on their feet. Battle-weary, but nowhere near defeated.
And so I was fortunate enough to again find myself at an arts festival this year: the National Arts Festival (NAF) in Makhanda. I have to write about it. Because as this festival’s marketing campaign promises: it has changed me.
The NAF began in 1974, which makes it the longest-running festival in South Africa. It is the only arts festival where Afrikaans productions don't dominate — English and indigenous African languages are more common.
On my first day I experienced the power and expertise of Gregory Maqoma’s Exit/Exist. This dance production draws on the history of Maqoma’s ancestor, Chief Jongumsobomvu Maqoma, a resistance fighter against colonial occupation who was murdered on Robben Island in 1873.
The dancer first emerges in a shimmering suit, light dancing over his almost liquid body; later, his naked upper body glistens and gleams with sweat, the dancer is a warrior, a threatened animal. Simphiwe Dana's music connects to a spectrum of styles: isichathamiya and maskanda, 19th-century Victorian choral music, African drums and kwaito. Maqoma shares a history through body and music.
Later, I’m in a school hall listening to saxophonist Linda Sikhakhane, the 2022 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz. The venue is packed with youngsters: the National Youth Jazz Festival runs concurrently with the NAF and draws aspiring young musicians to workshops with local and international jazz experts.
Sikhakhane received some of his earliest instruction at the festival, as did his co-performers, Afrika Mkhize (piano) and Shane Cooper (bass). Their performance is pure power: a perfect balance between individual countenance and group fusion. (www.lindasikhakhane.com)
And then, the plays. The King of Broken Things, which will soon show at the Market Theatre, is a tale told by a young boy about the beauty of broken things: those discarded things that deserve a chance at another life in a different guise.
He believes everything can be made new if it can be re-imagined — even human relationships. This touching and deeply sad story, told simply through fine acting, a clever set design and highly original lighting, left me in tears, and I was by no means the only one.
Hold Still by Nadia Davids had a similar impact on its audience. Mwenya Kabwe and Andrew Buckland expertly manage the many different threads and issues probed in this complex and powerful play, which will leave no viewer unchanged.
Castaways tells a tale of shipwreck, love lost and friendship found through a minimalist set — a small wooden platform and cables suspended from the ceiling of the Guy Butler Theatre — and acrobatic movements by a circus troupe on a pole while suspended from pieces of hanging cloth, with babblings in almost-French and sort-of Spanish. This piece transcends language and culture to offer a human tale for all walks of life.
Jewels on the Fringe
The curated works on the main festival are awesome, but my true love lies with the Fringe (I’ve written about this phenomenon before.)
The NAF is the only South African arts festival that supports a fringe festival, where pieces are not subjected to a selection process. Fringe productions are typically presented in alternative performance spaces and are often experimental.
Because there is no control over content, the Fringe can become something of a barometer of what is uppermost on our citizenry’s minds: Fringe theatre pieces grapple with poverty, rape, corruption, violence; questions are posed about culture, tradition, heritage; hope is searched for and found in bravery and resilience.
Sometimes the lights fail, the audio malfunctions, the actors may not be professionally trained. But you can suddenly, unexpectedly, happen on a beautiful little gem of theatre that touches you in all the right places.
Theatre builds bridges
Days later, after recovering from the post-fest downer and the ovation withdrawal, I can attempt to articulate something about the experience. What has this festival done? What does theatre accomplish?
Some years ago, I waited outside a venue for a performance of Rokkie, a solo piece with Charlton George. The lead character is a coloured transgender person who was genetically born male and who over the course of the piece tries on various beautiful dresses and wigs while delivering a monologue about their life.
An elderly white woman was in front of me in the queue, wearing a smart, lavender pants suit and pearls, hair immaculately styled. I asked her what piqued her interest in this particular play. Her answer: “Well, I don’t know any men who prefer wearing dresses, and I know nothing about these trans issues. So I thought I would come to this play and maybe I could learn something."
This wonderful lady took my breath away.
Theatre shows you worlds you have never imagined. Theatre breaks open, builds bridges, crosses borders, it opens eyes and makes you see anew, feel anew.
Theatre makers create scenarios that their audiences may enter to learn empathy for people and circumstances hitherto unknown to them. The lady with her pearls left the theatre with more wisdom and insight into human lives than she arrived with. Such empathy, I firmly believe, makes it more difficult to fear and to hate. More possible to accept.
The NAF has a particular magic. Its multilingualism means audiences represent the many races and languages of our country. The broad spectrum of work on offer — everything from community and student theatre to works featuring established actors, mainstream and fringe — welcomes South Africans from many different contexts: city slickers, country bumpkins, school kids, young adults, seasoned theatre-goers, first-time audience members.
Tiny Makhanda staged more than 200 productions in 2023. Some were fully booked and some had seven people in the audience. But everything made it onto the stage. Everything had a place.
Those who make theatre for a living survive in a brutal industry and an often unkind world. But they keep producing, they stand strong and remain brave so that they can create these wondrous worlds for us, their audience.
For those of my fellow South Africans who have not yet boareded the festival bandwagon: hop on. It will change you.
♦ VWB ♦
BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: Go to the bottom of this page to share your opinion. We look forward to hearing from you.