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DARRYL DOES GRAHAMSTOWN (article first published : 2001-04-8)

Darryl Accone, editor of Artsline (Artslink.co.za) looks at the 2001 Standard Bank National Arts Festival and gives a taste of what’s on offer:

In its last year as title sponsor of the annual national arts festival, Standard Bank has pulled out a few stops, including the Royal National Theatre from the UK. After being the mainstay of 18 of the 27 Grahamstown festivals, the bank is altering its association from 2002. But its swansong, from June 28 to July 7 2001, will provide some remarkable fare. The festival has secured two internationally celebrated companies, the Royal National Theatre and US dance company The Works, alongside enticing new works by eminent South African artists including Brett Bailey, Andrew Buckland and Bheki Mkhwane, Marthinus Basson and Reza de Wet.

Bailey, the iconoclastic young writer and director who made his name with ipiZombi and The Prophet, presents Big Dada, an examination of fascism as most graphically seen in the life and hideous times of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. Already the work has been snapped up by the Barbican Theatre in London, a further step in the internationalisation of Bailey's reputation.

An African leader of an altogether different calibre, the Xhosa chieftain Makana, is the subject of Buckland and Mkhwane's collaboration Makana, under Janet Buckland's direction. Makana's kop is the hillock that overlooks Grahamstown from its township side. If you have been there, you could not have failed to discern the whispering ghosts of the past and of the bloody battle of Grahamstown. There is a lot of settler myth about eastern Cape border conflicts, the battle itself and Makana, much of which this theatrical exploration promises to explode.

Border wars of later years feature in Boetman by Pieter Fourie, a docudrama that is billed as "based on the heated media debate between two generations of Afrikaners about apartheid and the border war era". It is directed by Marthinus Basson, who has always enlivened the festival with his daring readings of classics and modern and new works.

Another festival stalwart, Reza de Wet, is back with a new play, always cause for stimulation. Described as "an evocative, tragicomic dream play, awash with her sombre magic: ghosts that walk, melancholy women ensnared by the clinging shadows of the past, a hint of Noh, a whiff of Chekhov", On the Lake looks likely to entice mainstream drama festivalgoers.

From the pen of Ryk Hattingh, now living abroad (when last I heard, he was in America, delighting in mastering the art of shoemaking), comes Eensnaar, a meditation on the avant garde Afrikaner intellectual Louis Leipoldt, with David Butler as Leipoldt, directed by Mark Graham.

AIDS is a subject of increasing theatrical concern. To mention two recent works: Pieter-Dirk Uys has created the very effective For Fact's Sake and Robyn Orlin's FNB Vita Dance Umbrella piece we must eat our suckers with the wrapper on is perhaps the most accessible and poignant of en passant AIDS education works I've seen. In this (sadly) developing genre, Phyllis Klotz and the Sibikwa Players bring to Grahamstown their new piece, The Stadium, an examination of the live fast, die fast aspects of township sex culture, told with humour, kwaito and dance.

Also on the mainstream bill of 14 productions are three classics of the stage: Julius Caesar, Waiting for Godot and The Blacks. Yael Farber will direct the first, reportedly locating Shakespeare's concerns in a post-colonial milieu of superstition and supernatural phenomena. Lara Foot-Newton sets Samuel Beckett's absurd drama Waiting for Godot in a landscape of AIDS and poverty, with Vladimir and Estragon played as clowns. The Blacks is a co-production between The Market Theatre and the Stockholm City Theatre, featuring eight South Africans and five Swedes under the direction of Briton Martin Duncan. Those with longish national theatre memories will be eager to compare this staging with Dieter Reible's fascinating production for what was then Pact more than a decade ago.

Britain's Royal National Theatre, in collaboration with the Tron Theatre of Glasgow, will present Further than the Furthest Thing by Zinnie Harris. Set in - and inspired by - the Tristan da Cunha evacuation in the '60s it has been described as evoking "the sadness and beauty of a civilisation in crisis".

Out on the streets, there will be theatre aplenty in iLobola by that durable and diverting partnership Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane; the return of the eye-boggling, double-jointed wonders of father-and-son Bolter and Nkosi Ntuli in Rubberman; and the French 360 Degrees in the Shade, "a show of light and sight, time and visual images" presented by Amoros and Augustin and brought to the festival courtesy of the French Institute of South Africa.

Dance highlights include Jennifer Muller's famed American company The Works; the Jo'burg Dance Factory's Oliver, with dancers from Alex and Soweto in a work by Danish choreographer Marie Brolin-Tani that updates Charles Dickens' classic and changes its genders: Oliver is a girl in disguise and Fagin a fearsome street mama; and Marthinus Basson's creation Tango del Fuego, a boundary-defying history of tango filled with the form's founding impetus of rapine colonialism, forced removal and slavery.

Classical ballet lovers who find Basson's explorations too much can seek solace in the Cape Town City Ballet's Camille, choreographed by Veronica Paeper, based on La Traviata and using Verdi's music.

Musically, there is another New Music Indaba to look forward to as well a jazz opera based on Zakes Mda's novel Ways of Dying (previously the subject of a theatre adaptation). Love and Green Onions, the jazz opera, has music by Denzil Weale and book and lyrics by Michael Williams, whose "indigenous operas" have alternately enriched and enraged the festival over the years. The jazz idiom is to be heard also in Moya wa Sechaba: Spirit of the Nation, from Jazzart choreographer Alfred Hinkel, collaborating with soprano Sibongile Khumalo, the remarkable children of the breathtaking Zip Zap Circus and violinist Tshepo Mngoma.

And that, folks, is just an impressionistic highlights trip through the mainstream programme. Full details are to be found at www.sbfest.co.za Booking for the festival opens at Computicket on May 14. – Darryl Accone (courtesy of Artslink.co.za)




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