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

NAF, GRAHAMSTOWN, JULY 4 (article first published : 2008-07-5)

This is my last day at the festival so most of my time was taken up with writing last-minute reviews and packing. Looking back over the last week, it’s been a stimulating experience to have seen so many fine productions. The only problem is that, after a while, one runs out of superlatives and longs for a bummer so you can stretch your vocabulary in the opposite direction!

Another reason why I enjoy coming to Grahamstown for the festival – despite the distance, the cost and the cold - is to preserve that vital time to recharge my batteries and to reaffirm my belief that there is still a theatre-going public in South Africa. Would more of them lived in Durban!

In an interview which appeared in this morning’s Cue, with Cue reporter Leila Hall, new CEO Tony Lankester stated that Grahamstown should prepare itself for a 17-day-long festival in two years time. The aim is to divert 2010 World Cup visitors to Grahamstown during the gaps between games and the prospect of a newly rebuilt railway line between Grahamstown and Port Alfred will open up new accommodation prospects. Next year is to be a “warm-up year” when it is hoped that the festival will be extended by a day or two to assess the logistics.

Cue guest writer Anthea Garman wrote about the focus of this year’s Winter School in an article headed “We’ve got a lot to worry about: Winter School speakers call for citizens to wake up and save SA’s precious institutions from a government turned party”.

It seems that many of the speakers chose the event to express concerns on this subject. Deborah Posel, the director of the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research, is quoted as saying: “What we are seeing in South Africa is the `erosion of the state’. We don’t have a government but a party running our country. We have to move into a politics where people are mobilised into an active citizenry that holds the state to account. It is extremely dangerous now in South Africa to trust the state.”

These sentiments resound in a line in Biko: Where the Soul Resides where Steve Biko and Barney Pityana are discussing what would actually happen when a black government was in power: “Everyone’s jostling for positions and we’re not even in power yet!” The year? 1973!

Biko: Where the Soul Resides could easily have become a politically angst-ridden production but instead writer and director Martin Koboekae has produced an exciting and dramatic play which honours his achievements but at the same time allows us to come to know Steven Bantu Biko, the man.

In his programme notes, Martin Koboekae states: “I have tried in the play both to capture Biko’s dialogue, which in real life sparkled with wit giving intellectual pleasure, and to expose his oratory and persuasive disposition.” He goes on to say that he wrote the play as a tribute to “the life of one of the selfless sons of Africa, who sacrificed so much for his country and who artistically has not been fittingly honoured 30 years after his death.”

The play covers certain incidents in the last 10 years of Biko’s life and the role of the political icon is in the very capable hands of Masoja Msiza who gives us the right balance of tempestuous energy, sexual attraction, forceful articulation and clear-cut vision - not to mention an impressive demonstration of the monkey-jive! This is a formidable performance that allows the humorous aspects to stand alongside the political while his scenes in the interrogation room were emotionally charged.

Patrick Bokaba as Barney Pityana and Boitumelo Mothabela as Mamphela Ramphele were good foils for Masoja Msiza’s energy. They are well supported by Erno van Dyk (Father Stubbs/Judge Boshoff); Tsallo Chokwe (Ben Ngubane/Malusi Mpumlwana); Sibulele Gcilitshana (Ntsiki Biko/Vuyelwa Mashalaba); Errol Ndotho (Aubrey Mokoape/Mapetla Mohapi); Bruce Gounder (Strini Moodley) and David Dukas (Sergeant Hattingh).

The setting needs to be streamlined as it is quite inhibiting at present and slows the action. The judges’ podium, which was only required towards the end of the play, could have been removed until such time as it was needed because it masked much of the video imagery. However, as the play drew to its dramatic close, it was the fighting spirit and vision of Biko that remained uppermost.

The evening remained crisp and clear, with lightning flashes to be seen far away in the direction of Port Elizabeth. A cold front has been promised for the weekend. While I’ll be sorry to leave the festival and Grahamstown tomorrow, I welcome returning to Durban’s warmer weather! – Caroline Smart




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