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

DRAMA ON 2007 NAF (article first published : 2007-03-27)

In a world grown increasingly angry and aggressive, individuals inevitably react by seeking meaning in the particular, the private and the personal. And the arts, harbingers of our inner lives, lead the way. The trend is clear in the Main Programme for the National Arts Festival which takes place in Grahamstown from June 28 to July 7. Several important new theatre pieces focus closely on the tender moments when two souls find common ground. The music programme is infused with the overwhelming humanity of hundreds of voices singing in unison. A vast embroidered altarpiece celebrates the joy and the beauty of creation. This is pleasure with a deeply healing purpose. Art that helps to fill in what’s missing - helps to make sense of our existence.

Now in its 33rd year, the Festival began in 1974 and has grown to be one of the leading arts festivals in southern Africa. Its objectives are to deliver excellence; encourage innovation and development in the arts by providing a platform for both established and emerging South African artists; create opportunities for collaboration with international artists; and build new audiences.

“The programme offers a representative sample of current creative preoccupations,” said Lynette Marais, Festival Director. “Our artists have extra sensitive antennae which enable them to scout out the route ahead, anticipating the way people on the ground deal with the contexts they find themselves in.” Now, more than ever, audiences and artists are turning inward, reassessing value systems, questioning the accuracy of memory, overhauling the power balance in relationships, and trading-in yesterday’s hopes and dreams for new ones.

Featuring four world premières and three South African premières, the theatre programme keeps the Festival promise that festinos can get up to speed with the latest and the best. Sure to make headlines, a new South African production of Edward Albee’s mesmerising Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf features a powerful team in this Baxter Theatre production: Janice Honeyman directs Sean Taylor, Fiona Ramsay, Nicholas Pauling and Erica Wessels.

Two fascinating pieces both based on South African documentary also première at the Festival. The Story of The African Choir, written and directed by Jane Collins for the Market Theatre Laboratory, relives the painful emotions of a young black church choir on a failed tour of Victorian England. Every Year, Every Day, I am Walking is the latest in a string of fabulous creative Magnet Theatre productions. It is based on the real-life experiences of refugee children. Mark Fleishman directs a cast that includes Jennie Reznek and Faniswa Yisa, with music by Neo Muyanga.

Proving yet again that real lives can make great theatre, Roy Smiles’ Good Evening dramatises the effects of instant fame on the four new graduates who created that smash-hit revue, Beyond the Fringe, in the 1960s. A world première, this Pieter Toerien Production is directed by Alan Swerdlow with Graham Hopkins, Malcolm Terrey et al. Described by a critic for The New Yorker as “Fiery, intelligent, and comedic”, In the Continuum is directed by Robert O'Hara, written and performed by Danai Gurira and Nikkole Salter. They each bring dozens of characters to life in the story of two young women who live worlds apart – in Los Angeles and Harare. One crazy weekend they experience darkly funny moments of self-discovery in the context of the HIV/Aids epidemic.

Relationships between young black men and older white women are at the centre of the action in another pair of new plays, Lara Foot Newton’s Reach and Craig Higginson’s Dream of the Dog. In Reach, an unlikely pair makes a genuine connection that results in the miracle of healing. Direction is by Clare Stopforth with Aletta Bezuidenhout and Mbulelo Grootboom.

The Higginson drama, directed by Malcolm Purkey, is dark and tense and the power shifts between characters as they negotiate treacherously incomplete memories. Interracial, a new play by Paul Grootboom, and Blackbird by David Harrower, tackle aspects of sexuality that are as topical as they are sensational. When it opened in Edinburgh, Blackbird earned rave reviews for the way it addresses the unpalatable implications of an affair between a man in his 40s and a 12-year-old girl. Interracial centres on the murderous jealousy of a ‘liberal’ white man who calls in the hit men to deal with an affair between his wife and a fellow dancer who happens to be black.

Brett Bailey’s exquisitely imagined Orfeus reaches back into Greek mythology to recall another doomed affair which his production retells in the contemporary African context. Music is the hero of Orfeus, and language is abandoned in favour of movement in the deliciously watchable Ascenseur, Fantasmagorie pour élever les Gens et les Fardeaux, created and performed by French master of mime and juggling, Philippe Ménard. Rémy Balagué directs for the Compagnie Non Nova (France).

And to round the programme off with gusts of laughter, the inimitable Pieter-Dirk Uys presents Evita for President! When humour is honed against a powerful intellect, political folly takes a drubbing.

Festinos keen to discover new talent and experience fresh productions can also find a feast of entertainment in the Student Theatre programme, featuring work from 11 tertiary institutions from around the country.

Four lively and colourful productions will alternate at The Studio, a venue dedicated to music, dance and performance – many from far-flung country areas of the Eastern Cape. This is art from places you wouldn’t normally get to. The sacred Ingobhe dance (homage to the amaMpondomise ancestors), performed by a group of women from Tsolo, is just one example. Four free productions on the Street Theatre Programme ensure that every visitor can afford a satisfying Festival theatre experience. Two of the shows come out of Europe/South Africa collaborations. Kruik (Jar), based on the Pirandello romp, features homeboy Dumisile Mqadi and Dutch actor Paul R. Kooy directed by Roel Twijnstra of Het Waterhuis (Holland). A play within a play, A Moliére in Soweto sees Soweto Kliptown Youth (SKY) working with French theatre professionals, Neusa Thomasi and Eric de Sarria.

Liz Lochhead’s medea – m/other house is a powerful reworking of a Greek classic. Director Ingrid Wylde has set her new production in and around a gracious old stone mansion.

Fresh from their tour of London and Manchester, the Art of the Street performers from the Eluxolweni Shelter present Shark, an action-packed adventure in the depths of the sea … and of the streets. Direction is by Wesley Deintje under the guidance of Alex Sutherland.

As the countdown to the festival begins, keep a watchful eye on this space or www.nafest.co.za (See other disciplines for festival programme news)




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