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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 UP (article first published : 2003-09-24)

In the Hilton Festival office at lunchtime yesterday (September 20), the organisers were saying they had been waiting 11 years for a really foul day at the festival, and now they had got it. It was the second wet festival Sunday in a row, but yesterday was a real horror, particularly before lunch. The main losers on a bad day are the crafters. People either sit in the tent and drink gluwein and coffee or get into any show they can, just to be indoors. Strolling round the craft stalls is only fun in decent weather.

The figures for the main festival were showing ticket sales of 75% of capacity by Saturday evening - pretty good going. The Fringe figures will only be available later in the week, but a quick calculation suggested that, overall, around 12,000 tickets had been sold by Saturday night. Most of those tickets were getting people into quality shows. The standard was good this year - better than 2002's rather bland programme. There was a good mix of drama, music and comedy; local and international writing and some bold new ideas and experimentation. It wasn't all totally successful, but festivals are meant to be places to try things out.

Listening to the buzz in the foyers, the popular choices seemed to be Proof - yet another KickstArt and Greg King winner; The Art of Taking Off, though it had a few detractors; the same applied to Happy Natives; Brutal Tunes; Charl van Heyningen; Titanic on Ice and, for those who were brave enough to see it, the astounding Tshepang. There is still one area that needs to be sorted out - the tent. The new restaurant, Fabulous, could have fed three or four times its capacity at each meal, so most festival-goers were doomed to suffer slow fast food and ear-splitting music in the tent. There are no easy answers on how to accommodate people when they are not in shows, but something must be done. After 11 years of discomfort, it is fair enough to moan.

But taken as a whole, Sue Clarence and her team can look back on yet another success. They know what their audience likes, they know how to keep things running smoothly and if it works, why change it? It is justifiably a September highlight for the KZN theatre scene.- Margaret von Klemperer

The following are reviews of The Natal Witness Hilton Arts Festival from Margaret von Klemperer (MvK), Peter Mitchell (PM) and Stephen Coan (SC). (Courtesy of The Natal Witness)

TSHEPANG (Main Festival) :To take the story of Baby Tshepang, the raped nine-month-old, and turn it into theatre would seem to be to do the impossible. But Lara Foot has done it, assisted by impeccable performances from Mncedisi Shabangu and Kholeka Qwabe. Yes, it puts the audience through an emotional wringer – at moments it is almost unbearable. You emerge shattered, but not distressed. The message is one of hope. With a simple set – a mound of salt, crudely carved figures, a loaf of bread, a broom, a bed – Foot creates a dirt poor community, beaten down by a relentless sun and the legacy of a cruel system. And in doing so, she gives back the humanity so often taken away by crude headlines of “Baby Rape”. Sue Clarence and Lara Foot probably knew that Tshepang would not draw full houses at Hilton. It is issue theatre, often uncomfortable and not in festival mood. But those who made the effort – and full marks to Haythorne High as the only local school who took up the offer of Friday morning’s performance – will have had a truly cathartic experience. Superb. (MvK)

GEORGY PORGY (Fringe): Thomie Holtzhausen has taken Roald Dahl’s tale of an inhibited clergyman and transposed it to a Platteland Pastorie in a neat solo performance. Poor old Georgy has an inkling that his problems may have stemmed from his mother’s liberated ideas of sex education which seem to have led to her untimely demise via ringside seats for her and Georgy as Josephine the rabbit did unmentionable things to her firstborn. And it’s downhill all the way from there for him. Dahl’s black humour lends itself to this kind of staging and Holtzhausen does a fine job of bringing the plot twists and surprises to life. A lively and entertaining fringe piece that does not overstay its welcome. (MvK)

VOICES FROM THE BRINK (Fringe): Patrick Hyland’s poetic piece which depicts the growth of a city from crocodile-infested mangroves to a bustling place of booming taxis, prostitutes and lonely flat dwellers, spoken by Anthony Stonier and Belinda Henwood while Andrew Verster paints four panels as a backdrop and Hettie van Wyk plays the cello, was a brave attempt at something different. But sadly, it didn’t quite come off. The echoes of Under Milk Wood are too strong, and with the four principals crowded together on a small stage, they tend to distract attention from each other. It was a creditable effort, but not a successful one. (MvK)

ANGELA GILBERT IN CONCERT (Fringe): Angela Gilbert is a delight. The Hilton Chapel is an uncomfortable venue, but Gilbert, beautifully accompanied by Christopher Duigan, soon made people forget their discomfort. After her first aria, Gilbert had the lights put on so that she could see and communicate with the audience – and that is what she does so well, whether by exquisite singing or her robust and earthy chat. Her musical choices ranged from the well known O mio babbino caro to the exquisite Sleep by Rachmaninoff, and ended with a wonderful and lively medley from musical and operettas, including the delicious Glitter and Be Gay from Candide. Gilbert is the kind of singer who make music accessible, removing the mystique but not the glamour – she looks wonderful, but swigs her water from a big blue bottle. Forget elitism, Gilbert rocks. (MvK)

MEMORY OF WATER (Main): It's hard to go wrong when you have a superb script - this play won an Olivier Award for best new play in London in 2001 - and an excellent cast. Greg King has yet again delivered a winning combination in this funny and clever drama of three sisters coming home for their mother's funeral. They may not have liked her much, but she continues to haunt them, literally in one case. Clare Mortimer, Liesl Coppin and Olivia Borgen play the sisters, with Vera Clare making a welcome appearance as the mother. King and Peter Court play the two men. The play deals with memory, anger, selfishness and secrets and makes for intelligent, satisfying entertainment. (MvK)

PROOF (Main): A simple (mathematical) love story made theatrically engaging by moving around time and ghosts; unravelling the thread of the plot like a thriller. Deftly directed by the creative Greg King and beautifully performed by Olivia Borgen, Clare Mortimer, Franz Dobrowsky and Neil Coppen. A highlight. (PM)

THE OPEN COUPLE (Main): A sophisticated, intelligent comedy turned into trashy third-rate South African sitcom by two performers who should have known better and a director who obviously didn't. A complete waste of big bucks. (PM)

BRUTAL TUNES (Fringe): More camp than brutal, Anthony Stonier and Lisa Bobbert (accompanied by Andrew Warburton) send themselves up as they belt out mostly Lehrer and Coward tunes. Great fun that would be hilarious with a few drinks under the belt! A thumbs up with a limp wrist! (PM)

THE ART OF TAKING OFF (Main): You enter the theatre to find Gerard Bester in his underpants suspended from the ceiling in a harness while a stagehand pumps smoke around. Bester is agonising over the end of his play and once he gets down on the ground spends another hour of prevarication fussing over the minutiae of getting dressed. Though he finally gets his ending - or maybe time just runs out - he also manages some splendid entrances; not least that of Othello in the Verdi opera (other music bites include Tom Jones, Joe Jackson and Tom Waits). At first glance this is an often hilarious piece of deliverate inconsequence making clever use ofminimal props, but there's actually much more going on. After all, how often do we postpone life worrying about its end? Or lose sight of the big picture while becoming consumed by the details? Such existential concerns inform this innovative and ultimately moving work directed by Sue Pam Grant of Take the Floor and Chasing Chairs fame. (SC)

PLUNGE (Main): This is the sort of play where the audience come out saying how clever the performers were at portraying non-human creatures. The couple in front of me were particularly impressed by the crab. There's no denying Plunge is excellent physical theatre; one expects no less from writer-director Andrew Buckland, who here directs the Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company in a recreation of an undersea world of crabs, sharks and coelocanths. Buskland's play combines two storylines; an oceanographic research team tracking coelocanth and a Xhosa woman's quest for her drowned child. According to Xhosa tradition, if a child should drown at sea or in a river, the parents must not express their grief in tears. If they can manage this, one day that child will return as a great sangoma. The evocation of an underwater world is expertly done and there are plenty of fishy jokes but the play fails to plumb any emotional depth. Physical dexterity and cleverness are not enough. (SC) SONTONGA QUARTET FREE CONCERT (Music): Simply sublime. A concert consisting of two works by composers born in KZN:White Man Sleeps by Kevin Volans from Pietermaritzburg and the String Quartet by Priaulx Ranier who was born in Howick in 1903 and went on to become a professional violinist and later professor of composition at the Royal College of Music in London. She died in 1986. As a composer she apparently looked to the musical traditions of the Zulu people rather than those of Europe, though this was not readily apparent in her String Quartet, a succinct, disciplined piece superbly executed by the innovative and adventurous Sontonga Quartet. The African motifs in Volans' work are immediately recognisable - the music emerging out of sounds familiar to all of us in this part of the world, from crickets to rain. So much so that even the occasional call of a hadeda from outside the Hilton College Chapel was not out of place. Composed initially for harpsichord in 1982, Volans reworked it for strings when requested by the Kronos Quartetto include in their album Pieces of Africa. It just so happens it's one of my favourite pieces of music; to hear it live was a special pleasure. Suggestion: how about one of our local music groups performing it at the Tatham Art Gallery one lunchtime - for a sponsor, try Volans Master Cleaners. (SC)




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