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

HILTON FESTIVAL (article first published : 2000-09-21)

There was a loud thunderclap at lunchtime on Sunday afternoon and the heavens opened on the Natal Witness Hilton Arts Festival. The laid-back, relaxed crowds thronging the craft market changed in a flash to a bedraggled huddle.

It proved how dependent this kind of event is on good weather. The shows go on regardless, but the festival vibe needs sunshine to flourish. It was particularly hard on the stall-holders who had to miss out on a mellow Sunday afternoon crowd, although food and drink sellers in the tent were benefitting.

The late arrival of one show, due to a misunderstanding, meant that the timetable was thrown out of kilter on Saturday evening, but it was a glitch most people seemed to forgive. Cellphone vandals remain a problem - and much less forgivable. Graham Hopkins deserves a medal for coping with the most intrusive cellphone ever heard in Saturday morning's Talking Heads. He could have been forgiven had he walked offstage, never to return - it was a pity the owner of the phone didn't do just that.

Saturday's weather was fine, and so was Sunday morning's, and the organisers can chalk up another success - the eighth festival and the biggest. Figures were not available at the time of going to press, but by Saturday evening ticket sales on the main were at over 88% - almost as high as last year's final figure. The rain will have hit yesterday afternoon's door sales, but a good many shows were already sold out and the estimate was final ticket sales of over 90%.

The new lecture programme, Brainfest, attracted a lot of interest while the general emphasis was on entertainment - plenty of comedy, easy-to-listen-to music and productions tailored for a festival audience. That means an audience who trot from one show to the next, able to put what they have just seen on a mental back-burner - it mustn't intrude on the rest of the day.

That is probably why the provocative, in-your-face Popcorn caused some indigestion. It is not a play you can dismiss quickly from your mind. Some audience members walked out, upset by the violence and bad language as well as by what the play has to say about the nature and responsibility of entertainment. The programme carried warnings, but still some people found it hard to stomach.

One of the most telling comments I heard came from someone who didn't walk out, who appreciated the quality of the material and performances and said afterwards - "I didn't mind watching Pulp Fiction or Natural Born Killers, but it's different on stage." Writer Ben Elton and director Greg King would probably take that as a compliment.

Festivals need their lightweight component, but they need their Popcorns too. The wider the diversity of shows, the more diverse the audience - and that is vital to ensure the survival of not just this festival but of the arts as a whole.




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