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DURBAN SHOWS AT HILTON ARTS FESTIVAL (article first published : 2008-08-11)

Some of the top-rated stage shows seen in Durban this year and in 2007 will feature prominently at this year’s Witness Hilton Arts Festival which is set to be held, as usual, in the picturesque, sprawling grounds of Hilton College from September 12 to 14.

Durban shows on the programme will include Lisa Bobbert’s one-woman tour de force, Shirley Valentine, directed by Steven Stead and designed, with his usual excellence, by Greg King. This delightful play by Willie Russell revolves around a Liverpool housewife who finally gets the courage to break free of her apron strings and domineering husband to take a holiday to Greece, where she finds true freedom. It’s a beautifully written play, often hilarious, and Bobbert is wonderful. Don’t miss it!

Also deserved of packed houses is another treat from King and Stead’s KickstArt company – their outstanding production of the David Mamet play, Oleanna, teaming Janna Ramos-Violante and Tim Wells, both superb. A fascinating theatrical study fuelled with sexual tension, it is about the power struggle between a university professor and one of his female students, who accuses him of sexual harassment. Dramatic, taut and very provocative, this Durban production was better, for this reviewer, than the London West End production that starred Aaron Eckhart (brilliant) and Julia Stiles (disappointing). Also headed for Hilton is the award-winning Master Class, starring Clare Mortimer in the lead role of legendary opera star Maria Callas. This production of Terrence McNally’s Tony Award-winning play won a Mercury Durban Theatre Award last year for both Mortimer and director Ralph Lawson. Mortimer is supported in this epic performance by popular pianist Andrew Warburton and singers from the UKZN Opera School.

Another festival pick which met with wide critical acclaim in Durban is Nothing But The Truth, written by and starring John Kani, which has been selected as the flagship production for the Hilton Arts Festival. Presented by arrangement with the Baxter Theatre, this captivating drama is directed by Janice Honeyman and also features television star Motshabi Tyelele, and Welile Tembe. Decor and costume design is by Sarah Roberts and lighting design by Mannie Manim. Kani excels as a librarian who dredges up memories while preparing, at his home in Port Elizabeth, for the funeral of his estranged, former-activist brother, who has long lived in London. In discussions and confrontations with his sheltered daughter (Tyelele) and flamboyant niece (Tembe), he begins to unveil secrets and lies, disappointments and regrets, with some incidental humour and many poignant moments. It’s excellent stuff and a must-see!

If you haven’t yet seen it, also try to catch Catch!, a solo work by Jacobus van Heerden, one half of the supremely talented Durban duo Neon Anthems, of Tokoloshe Come and Go fame. Originally presented locally as The Hilarious Adventure of Felix and Fred, this imaginatively conceived tale won this year’s Musho Festival Audience Vote Award and the Suliman Selection Award. It revolves around a 22-year-old wannabe rock star, Felix, who embarks on an adventure with Fred, a 12-year-old nerd. Both are newcomers to the town of Knysna, where a night-time fishing expedition goes horribly wrong.

Also recently seen in Durban and headed for the hills is Spun: The Legend of DJ Tommy Guns, which has the other half of Neon Anthems, Liam Magner (now on SABC1 in Bay of Plenty), playing a dozen characters. His new work is a colourful show focusing on Tommy Guns Duchamp, who is dead. Or at least he thinks so. The day started off bright and sunny in the beautiful mountain town of Makwazi-ville, where Tommy was looking forward to playing at the local jol and finally establishing his prowess as a DJ, to impress the local chicks (especially Jizzy Jasmine De-jagger). Now he finds himself faced with the task of saving mankind – and rescuing his cat from twisted, giant, talking cucumbers hellbent on destroying Earth.

Shall We Dance, always an annual drawcard in Durban, is also headed for Hilton this year. A joyous celebration of dancing – from Latin-American and ballroom to belly and modern – it stars Strictly Come Dancing personalities Ryan Hammond and Lindsay Muckel, finalists in the British National Championships (Latin-American) and placed 27th out of 300 couples at the British Rising Star Championships in Blackpool. Joining them are Latin-American formation teams. The Hilton performance is to be hosted by the South African Dance Teachers’ Association, produced by Neville Letard and Caryl Cusens, and compèred by Durban’s Anthony Stonier.

Speaking of Stonier, he is teaming again with Lisa Bobbert for the delightful Brutal Tunes, deftly directed by Caroline Smart, and first revived for a Durban season earlier this year. The award-winning revue, featuring piano accompaniment by Andrew Warburton, offers a mix of fun, witty songs and is a macabre mixture of mystery, murder, mayhem and mirth. Expect songs associated with Stephen Sondheim, Noel Coward and Tom Lehrer among others. Still talking Stonier ... also watch for him, alongside Durban’s Evan Roberts and Carol Trench, in Chanson, a cabaret celebrating French song. An elegant music revue, it will showcase classics associated with Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Charles Aznavour, Michel Le Grande and others.

As for other highlights on this year’s Hilton programme, one that catches the eye is I, Claudia, an award-winning one-woman play written by Canadian Kristen Thomson and starring Susan Danford. Directed by Lara Bye, it features unique masks and sound design. The play focuses on a pre-teen, an irrepressibly funny misfit, who suffers the triple afflictions of puberty, unpopularity and her parents’ divorce. Her story is told through four wonderfully exaggerated comic characters: Claudia herself, her grandfather, the caretaker of her school and her father’s new girlfriend. The result is said to be humorous, painful in its honesty and magical. It is further described as wise, life-affirming and moving.

Vanessa Cooke and Mncedisi Shabangu team up for Dream of the Dog, a play to be presented at Hilton by The Market Theatre. It is set on a remote KwaZulu-Natal farm and explores the terrible secrets that lie between Patricia, a 60-year-old farmer’s wife, and Look Smart, a 30-year-old land developer who grew up on the farm. Laced with tension, revelation and dark humour, the play is said to challenge some of our deepest assumptions about ourselves and each other. Written and directed by Craig Higginson, based on the original direction by Malcolm Purkey, it is described as an intensely personal story set against the canvas of rural South African life two decades before.

Other festival picks include: Talking Heads I and II – written by Alan Bennett, directed by Vanessa Cooke and starring the ab fab Fiona Ramsay (seen at Hilton in Book Club and Decadence), this production is sure to prove popular. Ramsay plays an eccentric antique dealer, Celia, and also reprises her touching interpretation of a vicar’s dipsomaniac wife, Susan.

Yellowman – performed by David Johnson and Mwenya Kabwe, this play comes to Hilton fresh from a tour of Holland. The winner of a best production award at the Klein Karoo Arts Festival in Oudtshoorn, it is Lara Bye’s production of an explosive American drama. Racism is no longer black and white, but shades of brown, as writer Dael Orlander Smith explores the tension between light and dark-skinned African-Americans. She tells the heartbreaking story of childhood sweethearts – “yellaman” Eugene and the big and dark Alma. Raised on too much liquor and too little love, they dream of escape and yearn for the adventure of new lives – travelling from the gin-soaked blues of South Carolina cotton fields to the funk and soul of New York City. Yellowman is described as a uniquely powerful and mesmerising slice of theatre.

Living Here! – A fresh, edgy and hard-hitting poetry kaleidoscope by six performers from the Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama company. They offer a mix of African and South African poems, infused with pop music, physical theatre and clowning to create a truly novel entertainment. The production is said to focus on issues no-one wants to talk about – issues of covert racism, fractured identities and assumed cultural superiority in the midst of a multi-cultural society. The Strange Case Of Dinah Lane is a fun “dinner thriller” from Annie Robinson and Paul Spence, tagged for Hilton’s Fleur de Lys. It’s a whodunnit set in the 20s and involving a sugar baron, his wife, an extraordinary array of guests and, of course, a murder most foul. Join Michael Buchan, the unlikely detective, on his quest to unravel the mystery behind the murder. In Feast Kakhulu!, Durban’s Ellis Pearson, England’s Max Webster and Denmark’s Mia Theil combine their acting skills and passion for composing unusual music. Using the family meal as a powerful metaphor, this quirky piece deals with the universal issue of greed, where the fat get fatter and the lean get meaner. It is said to be a comic exploration of a universal dilemma. See Who’s At The Door sees the ever-amusing Mark Banks present an all-new sketch comedy revue, specifically designed as a theatre presentation.

The festival will, as always, also offer an array of arts and crafts, as well as an eclectic mix of a dozen classical concerts hosted by Christopher Duigan’s Music Revival Concerts, featuring many special guests and soloists. New faces this year will include baritone Njabula Madladla and the Burdukova/Wisniewski cello-piano duo, while festival regulars will include the Kerimov Trio, James Grace, Blue Velvet Strings and jazz pianist Neil Gonsalves. For a glimpse behind the obvious, there will be a series of Thinkfest lectures and discussions on interesting and diverse subjects, presented by leaders in their respective fields. For the second year there will be a curated art exhibition at the festival. This year there will be a focus on local arts and craft, with regular arts workshops, as part of the festival programme to take place at the Art School, next to the Drama Centre. Scrap-booking, bread-making, flute-making and beading workshops will be scheduled into the event programme. The festival will also put a special focus on food this year, with two food areas from which to choose.

Booking will open on August 15, when programme scheduling details and booking kits will be available from selected Spar stores, Exclusive Books (La Lucia, Pavilion, Liberty Mall and Gateway), Adams in Musgrave Centre and central Durban, Cascades Bookshop and the Hilton College Theatre. They will also be available from leading galleries and theatre foyers. More detailed information can be found at www.artslink.co.za/hilton The festival hotline number is 033 383 0126. – Billy Suter




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