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HILTON WRAP UP (article first published : 2002-09-24)

The curtain came down on the Natal Witness Hilton Arts Festival last night after a weekend which, weatherwise, ranged from Saturday's hot sunshine to Sunday's chilly rain and mist - particularly tough for the craft market. The contrast was repeated on stage, with a couple of cracking successes on the one hand and, on the other, a complete no-show by artist Trevor Makhoba who decided not to bother to come and lecture the Brainfest audience.

Numbers look likely to be down from last year's record-breaking figures, though by mid-afternoon yesterday ticket sales on the main were 79% of capacity, not far below last year's final tally of 82%. Fringe and Brainfest figures take longer to come in, though in both cases they look likely to be lower than in 2001.

But even if numbers are down, the festival can still call itself a success. Once again it raised awareness of the arts in the region, offered theatrical entertainment that would otherwise not get here and showed what fun events of this kind can be for performers and audiences alike.

Theatrically, the line-up seemed a little thin for the festival's tenth birthday. The organisers are constrained by what is available and affordable but, while audiences come to festivals prepared to try out a couple of things, they also need a core of solid, professional shows where they can be assured of getting their money's worth.

In an arts climate which is struggling for money and support, heavyweight productions are in decline and performers have to put together shows which, even if lacking in substance, will put bums on seats and not be a financial risk. Decadance, Opdrag and Feedback demonstrated what established, top-class performers can do, and Baobabs Don't Grow Here offered a glimpse of enchantment from newer kids on the block but there was a lot of middle-of-the-road fare with a degree of sameness about it as well.

Outside the theatres, the festival needs to pay attention to the facilities in the tent. The food outlets should be upgraded to offer something other than fast food of the kind Jamie Bartlett pilloried in his show Everybody. At busy times and in bad weather, there is not enough space to sit down and while music in the tent is fine, it needs to be consistently good. And somewhere for those who want to sit and talk - and have something more substantial than tea and cake - should be found. Perhaps both sides of the theatre entrance could be tented, with a music stage in only one.

For the first time in ten years, security was a problem. On Saturday, several incidents of bags and phones being stolen were reported. The security teams thought they had identified a group of three, well-dressed women working together, although no-one was caught. Also, performers found props going missing from venues. One report turned out to be a false alarm when two chairs that seemed to have been stolen from Chasing Chairs later turned up in safe-keeping. They had been "saved" from outside the theatre during the changeover of two shows.

But the hiccups and criticisms were not major. Once again the festival offered a range of entertainment and raised a flag for the beleaguered arts sector. Sue Clarence and her team deserve credit for a well-run event - long may it continue into its second decade and beyond.




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