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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 WRAP (article first published : 2001-09-26)

Another Natal Witness Hilton Arts Festival - the ninth - has come and gone, and despite storm clouds gathering in the Sunday afternoon sky, the general feeling on the ground was that it has been another success.

Organiser Sue Clarence can justifiably deflect any criticism that comes the festival's way by pointing at the figures. The latest ones available at the time of going to press put ticket sales on the main festival at 95% and at 83% on the Fringe - the kind of numbers that most festivals and theatres would give their right hands for. Clarence reckoned late yesterday afternoon that final figures would be the best for the past four years.

Clarence, Geoff Thompson, Doreen Stanley and their team make it appear that they achieve this measure of success almost effortlessly, but the level of planning and organisation is extremely high, and the bigger the festival gets, the more complex become the logistics of holding it all together.

It must be said that the considerable crowds thronging the craft market, food outlets and performance venues are still noticeably white in complexion. There is little sign of the message that a good time can be had by indulging in a weekend of theatre getting out beyond what has always been the festival's core constituency - a middle-class, middle-of-the-road audience from the Natal Midlands, with additions from Durban and Gauteng.

Money plays a role - even one day at the festival for two people who might see three shows and buy food and drink is not a cheap outing. But it is important that the festival taps into a wider sector of South African society which has disposable income. A way has to be found to show them that the festival will be a welcoming experience and offer something they will enjoy.

It is good to see numbers of school pupils in the audiences. Probably the majority are being funded by their parents, but if they get into the habit of going to the theatre now, perhaps they will continue it even when it is their own hard earned cash that has to foot the bill.

Criticism of the early years, which centred on the Eurocentricism of what was on offer is no longer fair - the majority of shows now have a strongly and confidently South African flavour. A quick glance down the programme shows work by South African writers predominating. Andrew Buckland was this year's most established figure but there are plenty of challengers in the wings, including Greig Coetzee, Fiona Coyne and Thomas Hall. Marc Lottering heads up the powerful array of local comic talent which includes unlikely part-timers Alan Weyer and Brian Mullins and Thomas Hall again.

Inevitably, there were a couple of minor technical hitches, with shows running late. And, in a festival situation, if one show runs late, they all have to. Saturday's problems were caused by the disappearance of the main prop - a tin bath - for what crowd gossip seemed to be electing the hit of this year's festival - Skin Tight. It appears that over enthusiastic cleaners, clearing up in the theatre between shows, felt that the bath was more likely to belong to a cleaning team than to a production and tidied it away. A new one had to be found, holding things up all along the line. But it was not a serious glitch.

Next year will be festival number ten, and there is no reason to suppose that what has become an institution in the area will not head on into a second successful decade. The festival has found a niche, and one can understand the organisers' reluctance to tinker with it too much. After all, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Though a way of broadening its appeal would give it a final tune-up. - Margaret von Klemperer




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