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

GRAHAMSTOWN WRAP (article first published : 2001-07-8)

What visual images stick in the mind after five days at the Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown? The stomach-churning power of Cape sculptor Willie Bester's Who Let the Dogs Out?, Seputla Sebogodi's Vladimir laying his tattered jacket over the sleeping Estragon in a tender moment from Waiting for Godot and the visual pyrotechnics of 360 Degrees in the Shade, a night-time French street theatre piece which played with images and time on a huge screen under the freezing Eastern Cape sky.

Those are personal memories; on a more general level this was a festival with a good vibe. That's a hard thing to quantify but talking to people in markets, queues, pubs and on the streets, a sense emerged that things were going well. There were fewer people just sitting around and more trying to cram as many shows as possible into a short time. Ticket sales are up on last year and the festival, despite - or maybe because of - concerns for its future, seems to have recovered a sense of purpose and enthusiasm missing on my last visit two years ago.

When choosing what to see, I was struck by a trend in the programme. "Eurocentricism" is a swear word in many circles. We are told we want something new and local, expressing our own experience. So I was interested to see how many shows made unashamed reference to the unmentionable culture of Europe.

Yael Farber directed a group of Mafikeng-based actors in Sezar - a version of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar set in Azania, a contemporary African state. Using Shakespeare's English and a vibrant mixture of South African languages, turning Sezar into a flywhisk-toting despot and making a couple of sharp references to a leader who is always out of the country and ignoring the plague that is decimating his people, it delivered a telling rebuff to those who say Shakespeare has no relevance today. It was also physically exciting, and wonderful to watch.

So were the full two and three quarter hours of Waiting for Godot in Africa. Lara Foot Newton has added a bit of local vernacular to Samuel Beckett and with top-class performances from Seputla Sebogodi, Lionel Newton, Robert Whitehead and Bheki Vilakazi, gives this masterpiece of absurdist European theatre an African feel without compromising the play's integrity. After all, it is set nowhere, but this nowhere had just enough local reference to make it our own.

Dickens got his turn in Oliver, a dance play which updates the plot into the world of South African street children. The youngsters from Soweto and Alexandra who make up The Dance Factory were a little rough around the edges in some of their setpieces, but the story resonates here and now just as it did in Victorian England. And in Dada, the 16-year old girl who dances the role of Oliver, a South African star has been born.

Reza de Wet, one of South Africa's best known dramatists, had a less successful flirtation with Europe - Chekhov's The Seagull this time - in On the Lake, and Gary Gordon's First Physical Theatre Company took matters a stage further by responding to both de Wet and Chekhov in Lake ... beneath the Surface. Despite fine performances in both, the whole exercise turned into a piece of academic navel-gazing. The headline over the review of On the Lake in Cue, the festival paper, read "Bouncing Chekhov: Refer to Drawer", which irritated the First Physical Theatre but seemed more than fair to many others.

Of course there was plenty that made no reference to Europe - I was sorry to leave before Brett Bailey's Big Dada, taking a wacky, politically-incorrect, Bailey-style look at the rise and fall of Idi Amin and dedicated to President Robert Mugabe, opened on Thursday. Makana, written by Andrew Buckland and directed by his wife Janet, is also a purely African story and was one of the hottest tickets in town, and the indefatigable Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane tell a tale of star-crossed lovers and a herd of cattle in iLobola. Involving their audience in their manic antics, they bring their own message of hope and reconciliation.

Not all was fun and games. Willie Bester's Who Let the Dogs Out? installation combined the gruelling video footage of the dog squad turning their animals on illegal immigrants with a powerful group of sculptures representing the victim, the dog and its handler, and most horrific of all, the armless, robotic figure who filmed the incident. Difficult to look at, the whole experience raised insistent questions on the responsibility of the observer and brought one of the darkest passages of our recent history into the light.

What I saw in Grahamstown indicated a good festival, though one warning light flashed. South Africans are in a favoured position to take the best from our many backgrounds and weave it into our contemporary lives. If our artists are given the freedom to produce the work they see as relevant, it seems that they find creative ways of doing so. But that freedom will be compromised if whatever new money is found for next year comes with the strings of artistic interference attached. Margaret von Klemperer




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