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

HAPPY NATIVES (article first published : 2003-09-4)

Actor, writer and director Greig Coetzee is no stranger to KZN audiences. He has built up an impressive following since the first performance of his multi-multi-award winning White Men with Weapons. This was followed by Breasts, The Blue Period of Milton van der Spuy - which I still think is his finest and most thought-provoking work - and his first full length play Seeing Red.

His latest play Happy Natives returns “home” to KZN after playing to audiences in the United Kingdom, including a critically-acclaimed appearance at last year's Edinburgh Festival. It had its South African premiere on the main festival of the National Arts Festival this year and has since performed in Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Greig’s writing and his dry-wit humour produces some brilliant lines and they come thick and fast. The title comes from his response to his “growing concern that theatre from Africa presented outside of Africa” either deals with “wretchedness”, “triumph over adversity” or “happy dancing natives”.

I gave the play top marks when I reviewed it in Grahamstown bar one reservation – that it was “too careful and a little sterile” and lacked a certain “African-ness”. I felt it was missing a “rawness”, an edge and the challenging exuberance and mildly chaotic ups and downs of living in the Rainbow nation. I am happy to say that, now firmly back on African soil, Happy Natives lives and breathes South Africa. The characters are more “real” and the scenes have developed and are more credible.

I make no apology in quoting an extract from the Grahamstown review as these remarks still stand.

Played out against an impressively simple but effective set which looks like a miniature apartment block made of plastic beer/soft drink crates, Greig and his co-star Sello Sebotsane take on a number of characters. The storyline deals with two actors who play the corporate window-dressing “gumboot-dancing-Zulu-lions” game when commissioned to present a short entertainment piece for an advertising agency representing a government department.

Both performers are excellent in their various roles. Greig is a delight as the casual writer Kenneth; a garrulous Indian shopkeeper; the fervently PC and “new South African” female ad agency head, and the loutish gun-toting neighbour. Sello plays Mto, the new black man in the neighbourhood as well as a cultural minister and was an absolute scenestealer as said neighbour’s maid, Prudence. The final scene is powerful and very telling.

In a muscled and challenging script, some of the issues are wrestled with that face an emerging all-representative South African society today. The new home-owner is mistaken for a burglar at his own home in a previously-white Durban suburb or a loiterer in the local tearoom. He advocates mealies being grown in his garden and the slaughter of a goat in his back yard. The argument is posed: Is such behaviour lowering the tone of the neighbourhood and infringing animal rights? Or should one respect another culture in the need of a man to invite his father’s spirit to his house in a proper traditional manner?

Happy Natives is directed by Christine Harmar-Brown and Mark Rayment with designs by Emma Donovan and lighting design by Flick Ansell.

The show runs at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre until September 14. It then appears as the flagship production at The Natal Witness Hilton Arts Festival from September 19 to 21, going on to the Hexagon Theatre in Pietermaritzburg from September 23 to 26. Book at Computicket. Don’t miss it. – Caroline Smart.

After its performances in South Africa, the play goes back to the UK to start the first leg of a world tour. Taking Greig Coetzee’s place will be Durban actor Ben Voss and I look forward to seeing the partnership of Ben and Sello if we get to see it back on South African soil!




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