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HAPPY NATIVES (article first published : 2003-08-25)

Durban writer/actor/director Greig Coetzee has written a “wickedly amusing satire”, Happy Natives, which wowed international critics and audiences at last year’s Edinburgh Festival and this year has been touring South Africa and is about come to KZN.

It will be performed at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from September2 to 14, as the much-anticipated Flagship Production at the Natal Witness Hilton Arts Festival on September 19, 20 and 21, and at the Hexagon Theatre in Pietermaritzburg from September23 to 26.

In the new South Africa where the brightly branded “rainbow nation” is divided by memories of apartheid; enormous economic and social disparities; uneasy relationships and impossible expectations, Kenneth (Coetzee) and Mto (Sello Sebotsane) are desperate to get a government contract using theatre to sell the country to foreign investors.

Kenneth – all froth, ideas and ad agency lingo – has been working overseas but is back living with his parents now that his work permit has expired. The affable Mto - the son of a freedom fighter - is getting established as an actor, and has bought a house in a previously-white Durban suburb. The two realise that the Government commission comes with a price tag – the cultural minister is only interested in a glowing squeaky clean portrait of South Africa –the truth coming a poor second to the imperative of selling the country as a success story.

Coetzee and Sebotsane jointly play a total of eight or so roles, among them a TV woman project manager; Prudence the neighbour’s domestic worker, Jimmy the patronising gun-toting ex-border guard neighbour, and the cultural minister.

Happy Natives began as a facetious comment during the Edinburgh Fringe 2000 – a response to my growing concern that theatre from Africa presented outside of Africa, seemed to follow one or more of three themes: “wretchedness”, “triumph over adversity” or “happy dancing natives”. While I do not dispute the validity and relevance of these stories (my own piece White Men with Weapons is a tale of wretchedness), it is unfortunate that they appear to overwhelm the many other stories to be told about a very complex continent,” explains Greig.

“Coetzee’s play is excellent at showing misunderstanding and suspicion as part of the fabric of life, but never becomes bludgeoning,” comments Ian Shuttleworth of the Financial Times. The Metro’s Eddie Harrison calls it “an absorbing gem of a snapshot of modern South African life.”

Happy Natives is presented by B&R Productions in association with Soho Theatre in London. It is directed by Christine Harmar-Brown and Mark Rayment, designed by Emma Donovan and with lighting design by Flick Ansell.

Performances at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre from September 2 to 14 are Tuesdays to Saturdays at 20h00 and Sunday at 18h00 with a Saturday matinee at 15h00. Book at Computicket on 011 340 8000 or 083 915 8000. Bookings for the Natal Witness Hilton Arts Festival on 033 343 0126 or e-mail: theatre@hiltoncollege.com Hexagon Theatre Pietermaritzburg shows from September 23 to 26 at 19h30 can be booked through 033 260 5537 or e-mail: hexagon@nu.ac.za




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