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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

WITNESS HILTON ARTS FESTIVAL (article first published : 2004-09-21)

Another Witness Hilton Arts Festival - the twelfth - has come and gone. The weather was against them, but the audiences still rolled in. By 21h00 on Saturday, organiser Sue Clarence's figures showed the Fringe running at 84% sold out and the Main at 79%. In both cases, that is better than the final figures for 2003. Performers, audiences and crafters all suffered in Saturday's extreme heat - an indication being that bottled water was the first sell-out in the beer tent. For the crafters, the wind meant they spent their time hanging onto their stalls or struggling to keep the perpetually blowing grit and dust out of their wares. And while the various theatre venues were at least out of the wind, the heat turned sitting through a couple of hours of rising temperatures into an endurance test. Sunday was cool and damp - and no-one minded in the slightest. Over 12 years of festivals, audience favourites have changed. In the early days, it was the "Eurocentric" theatre that sold out first; South African shows had a harder time. Now, while shows like Honour still do well - and deserve to - only three of the main festival offerings this year were not written and based in South Africa. Maybe the days of cultural cringe are finally numbered. The slow fast food and lack of a late night chill-out venue still cause some grumbles, but the vibe among festival-goers was a good one this year, and Clarence still had time and energy yesterday to talk about plans for the future. Maybe we ain't seen nothing yet! What the Witness team thought of shows at this year's festival. Reviewers: Stephen Coan; Lynne Goodman; Sylvester Rankhotha; Janet Van Eeden; Margaret von Klemperer

The King of Laughter (the Nedbank Flagship Production). Laughter makes you laugh, and that's a good starting point for comedy. If the cast is laughing, with a bit of luck the audience will too. And they do in Craig Freimond's entertaining and touching play. The plot concerns Barry, a much-married and angry sound engineer whose job is to put the canned laughter into sitcoms. He's good at what he does, knowing what kind of laugh to put where, and over the years he has collected his own data base of titters, chortles and guffaws. But, as he puts it, his complexion doesn't match the new corporate colours and so his ice-maiden boss gives him the bad news. He's out, but for two months he has to train his successor. And the even worse news is that Jerome, the solemn and inexperienced young man who is to replace him, has not a glimmer of a sense of humour. The play keeps its touch light - the deeper and darker issues of race and competence that underpin the story are not developed and the message, if there is one, is that if we all laughed more, life and its vicissitudes would be a whole lot easier to handle. We are in feelgood territory here, and even if the end does veer towards the sentimental, there's nothing wrong with that. James Borthwick turns in a masterful performance as Barry, creating a shambling bear of a man whose wit hardly masks the anger boiling away inside. Wayne van Rooyen's Jerome is the perfect foil for him - small, neat and completely deadpan and while Claire Watling has the thankless task of bringing the icy Natasha to life, she does a good job and the slick timing between the three means that The King of Laughter rollicks along on its clever sound studio set and makes for thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. - Margaret von Klemperer

Honour - First and foremost Honour is a beautifully written play, full of character and ideas. Joanna Murray-Smith has taken what could so easily have been a clichè: the successful middle-aged man leaving his wife for a younger woman, and made of it a scalpel-precise examination of the ties that bind and then unwind. George is a successful journalist long married to Honor (Fiona Ramsay), a prize-winning poet whose talent appears to have been submerged by marriage and the birth of a daughter (Shelley Meskin). Into their even-keel lives arrives up-and-coming young writer (Abena Avivor) and George chucks everything. For love? Murray-Smith allows for no easy answers or neat conclusions. Honour is a play so well crafted that director Alan Swerdlow probably found himself conducting rather than directing; especially being blessed with a quartet of such superb actors. But with a script like this how could they not sing? - Stephen Coan

Green Man Flashing - Mike van Graan has long been an indefatigable thorn in the flesh of arts bureaucrats and here, with his award-winning political thriller, he has cast his net wider and taken on the whole political establishment, setting his sights on the morality of the politics of fixing and making his audience face up to whether the good of the cause (or the party) can be allowed to outweigh what the individual knows to be right. Not that this is either a solemn polemic or a play designed simply to annoy those in power. It is a successful, pacy thriller set among the higher echelons of politics. Good performances all round, and at least for Jenny Steyn the bathwater in Hilton should have been warmer than it was in Grahamstown. - Margaret von Klemperer

Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny - Greig Coetzee has gone back to what he does best - a solo show through which he can explore the situation of one small man against the world. And this time he has added another dimension: Johnny Boskak's life is lived in rhyming couplets. Johnny has problems. He's a whitey, has no job and no prospect of one and his only period of regular employment was back in the years when the army screwed up his brain. So he hits the road from Durban and heads into trouble, along with this beautiful chick, Eve, who, he decides, just has to be his cherry. The show has its share of laugh out loud humour, but there is also the pathos of the small people who live their lives in the twilight zones and whose portrayal has become a hallmark of Coetzee's best work. - Margaret von Klemperer

Festival String Quartet - Darragh Morgan, Ralicia Cherneva (violins), Valentin Koleva (viola) and Krystian Chernev (cello) formed their Festival String Quartet especially for this one-off performance. Their programme moved from pieces by Purcell and Mozart to compositions by contemporary minimalist composers Michael Nyman and Philip Glass. The musical connectivity was obvious: deceptively simple musical architecture rendered transcendent in execution. As Morgan explained "minimal means using minimum resources to maximum effect". No more so perhaps than in Estonian composer Arvo Part's Psalom, a meditative piece informed by his Orthodox Christian spirituality, where intervals of silence were invested with chilling power. Such pieces were offset by the high-speed Irish jauntiness of Micheal O Suilleabhain's Oiche Nollag (Christmas Eve) and a version of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix that did for that Sixties anthem what Hendrix did for The Star-Spangled Banner. Re-form this quartet immediately! - Stephen Coan

The Jacky-Hangman Three - The best part of this play is the end. When the final denouement is reached, sense is made of a story which seemed to have no particular place to go. Until the ending. Without it, certain things seemed gratuitous, such as the pole dancing sequence. Even though a finely honed Stacey Taylor did a few quite spectacular dances, I couldn't see the point of them. But the ending saved the day, and brought together all the strands. The well worn theme of Aids is given a different angle by the story of three orphans thrown together in a home for children in this duologue. I would have loved more dialogue, but then you can't have everything. Taylor is supported by a petulantly pouting Kasseran Pillay. For those who are fans of pole dancing, which seems to capture the current zeitgeist of our country, you will enjoy this show. - Janet Van Eeden

Ballet Theatre Afrikan - The fresh, vernal qulaity of Julian Brandon's opening Folk Songs characterises the appeal of this youthful company. But that doesn't mean the dancers can't soar to heights of eroticism and complexity, as they showed in the final Tarisiro by Mathias Julius from Zimbabwe's Tumbuka Company. The programme, which received a standing ovation, also included the pas de deus from Windows by the group's artistic director Martin Schonberg in which Yolande Olckers projected stunning sensuality with Kagiso Mabe rather relegated to the pre-Baryshnikov role of lifter. Such rising stars as Kitty Phetla and Carmen Harris showed command and charm and all the dancers are precision drilled to handle both the ethereal and the earthy styles of neo-classical and contemporary. I just wish they didn't have to project that reed thin Eurocentric image of the anorexic dancers of old. - Lynne Goodman

Water Pockets - Starring Nhlahla Mavundla, Lungelo Sitimela and Qaqambile Feliti, Water Pockets takes place in a rural setting that is steeped in traditional ways. One is immediately reminded of the past when watching, or should I say of the folk tales our grannies used to tell us. Yes, in the story everybody goes about their daily tasks, such as women collecting water at a distant river. However, things start to change when Big Pockets suddenly finds his way among the villagers, bringing good news of modern technology, turning people's beliefs and practices upside down. The story is easy to follow, is highly imaginative, full of symbolism and humour to balance out what could easily be a serious story of old ways meeting new challenges and the repercussions thereof. It caters for all backgrounds and cultures, is both exhilarating and musical, and at the same time, engages deep thought. - Sylvester Rankhotha

Black and Blue - In this piece Sylvaine Strike and Daniel Mooi deliver a beautiful, exciting mix of mime and acting where every movement, word, expression and prop is made to tell. She is a widow whose husband hanged himself from a tree outside the house; he is a casual gardener who comes to her door looking for work. She is frozen by the horror that she has endured, locked in a world of nightmare punctuated only by her alarm clock and cups of tea, and slowly he thaws her back into her full humanity. There is humour - quite a lot - and tenderness, and the story is a very simple one, but the pure, crafted perfection of its realisation brings it to enchanting life. - Margaret von Klemperer

Bloodstream - Andrew Buckland's work never ceases to surprise with his clever ingenuity. This play deals with the last remaining tree, Patricia, which is about to be cut down by a mindless human, R. Solo. When she tells him to hold on one minute, time stops in the Universal Court of Karma, where the two gods, Bungee and Jump, try to solve the problem. This was one of my favourite sequences, with great depictions of the Hindu-type god and the other standard god-type. They eventually decide that Patricia goes into the bloodstream of the human to change his mind. The humour is silly and adolescent at times, but never fails to draw a laugh with its cleverness. For example, the tree says to the human that her kind have been "wiping your arses for I don't know how many years." The young company performs with gusto and enthusiasm, and if you like clever physical theatre, this is for you. - Janet Van Eeden

Crooked - It must be said that, as it stands at the moment, Crooked is deeply flawed. Directing one's own work is never easy, and maybe John van de Ruit should now bring someone in who will prune his black comedy ruthlessly. Particularly in the first half there is a need for more pace to prevent some of the plot twists from being signalled to the audience. The story of three incompetent kidnappers who mistakenly involve a smooth con artist in their efforts to get a ransom for an elderly lady they have grabbed in her wheelchair has altogether too much plot in it, and this leads to inconsistencies. And the set, with its apartheid era symbols, is never really integrated into the action, or even properly explained, leaving it verging on the offensive. There's a good idea in the piece, but not yet fully realised. - Margaret von Klemperer

Shopping and Schtupping - Apparently Gilda Blacher's agent was worried Shopping and Schtupping might be too Jewish for the goyim of Hilton. She needn't have, who after all could resist such one-liners as "I go to a liberal synagogue, we have five commandments and five suggestions". Blacher's show combined character studies alternating with stand-up comedy. Among the characters were Rifka, the eternal bridesmaid, Amber the 12-year-old going-on-thirty and a bag-lady with friends from outer space. One character sketch turned deadly serious, sitting uneasily with the rest of the material. But it was well-written enough to make you think that given a director and a tighter hand Blacher could be even better than she is. Anyway she certainly gets my vote for her spot-on deconstruction of that crappy beer commercial that bleats of how great it is to be a man. Even if you're not Jewish. - Stephen Coan

The Compleat Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) - Steven Stead, Michael Gritten and Neil Coppen have a ball in this Peter Court directed romp through Shakespeare. The play has been around for a long time, playing in London's West End, but it is still great fun, if a bit messy (imagine Titus Andronicus as a cooking show and work out where the ingredients are coming from, and you can see what I mean). Audience participation is kept to a maximum and a good time is had by all. Once or twice things did begin to get a little out of hand - to work really well, this kind of bordering-on-slapstick comedy has to be tightly controlled. But it is so good natured that almost anything can be forgiven. - Margaret von Klemperer.

A Little Pride and Prejudice - This is an amiable enough telling of Jane Austen's classic story, but slightly marred by a couple of oddities, including the exclamation of "yirrah" by the actress playing the maid as she came in to change the scene and provide a bit of linking commentary. It gives the whole a rather amateurish air. But the idea of sitting in Mrs Bennet's drawing room (in a comfortable chair, which is a festival first!) and being given a cup of tea on arrival is a pleasant one. - Margaret von Klemperer




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