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

NAF DIARY: DAY ONE (JULY 1) (article first published : 2005-07-3)

First day of the 2005 National Arts Festival – for me, anyway, it actually started on June 30 – was spent mainly in setting up my portable office in the charming outdoor cottage I have rented for the festival period. Charming hosts, a comfortable bed with an electric blanket, good hot water availability and roses outside the window. What more could anyone want?

For those who have never been to the National Arts Festival and need a bit of encouragement – start packing now! If you have the money and the capacity to get to Grahamstown … then don’t hesitate, the festival is one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences you’ll have, if you go about it properly. What follows is part of my broadcast in last week’s Durban After Dark on Safm.

The most important thing is, have you somewhere to stay? If you don’t, then find a friendly relative or friend and ask them if you can sleep on the floor! If you’re not that dedicated, then log onto the festival website www.nafest.co.za and go to Accommodation. In fact, the website will give you all the information you need on virtually any subject.

I must say that the accommodation network in Grahamstown is very impressive. I used it for the first time this year and was amazed at the speed, thoroughness and interaction between the B&B, hotel and hostel outlets to ensure that the city of Grahamstown is able to provide you with your needs – whatever the size of your budget.

For a first-timer, the festival can be an enormously daunting exercise. Although the weather is relatively kind at the moment, it can be bitterly cold and the range of shows, exhibitions and events is massive. Humphrey Tyler, one-time arts reviewer for the Sunday Tribune, coined a phrase that is perfect: “Dress like an onion with an open mind“

“Dress like an onion” means lots of layers - from vests, to T-shirts, to waistcoats, to coats to scarves and hats – stuff you can take off and pile back on again as the temperature changes. An open mind is what you will need to enjoy what’s on offer because you can take in anything from an exquisitely modulated baroque quintet to a wild off the wall expletive-laden fringe drama piece.

The festival literally takes over Grahamstown which is a charming Settlers city with one of the most beautiful cathedrals I have ever seen. Generally, you can walk from venue to venue – except if it’s up at the Monument, then it’s a fairly steep climb. But there is a Hopper Bus which moves around the city and there’s always someone ready to give you a lift if you’re desperate.

If you haven’t booked anything yet, then get hold of a booking kit fast from one of the Standard Bank Outlets and secure your tickets at Computicket. If you haven’t time to do this before you go, then the first thing you do in Grahamstown is head for the Monument or the Village Green and buy something you cannot do without – an official Festival programme. Grab a glass of wine or a cup of coffee; find yourself a quiet corner and browse through the programme, which contains absolutely everything, including a map. By now, it is more than likely that most of the top attractions on the Main will be fairly booked out but it’s worth a try.

Make lots of second options – flexibility is the name of the game. Listen to the chat around you, buy the Cue festival newspaper every day and catch what’s good on the Fringe. Don’t try to book for more than two shows a day unless you really want to wear yourself out. After a while, you can lose the plot … it can get like that movie … “If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium”!

Build up your stamina; take flu pills and vitamin C. This is marathon stuff if you want to see as much as you can. There are far more food outlets in Grahamstown than before but if you’re on a tight budget the best thing to do is go to the Spar in African Street and buy survival stuff - biscuits, apples, biltong –and carry it around with you.

Remember that seating is mainly on scaffolding tiers erected in places like gymnasiums, church halls and club houses. This means that your back takes a bit of a strain. Get a satchel bag that’s big enough to carry the A4 sized festival programme and that you can sling across your person and it stays there.

Take woolly socks, boots, hot-water bottles, electric blankets and gloves. However, it can be gloriously warm around lunchtime when only a T-shirt and slacks will do. Remember Humphrey’s advice – dress like an onion with an open mind. In other words, be prepared for anything. If you are lucky enough to get to the Festival, have a wonderful time. It’s a stunning programme this year.

The only production I saw on Day One was Hamlet and you’ll find this reviewed separately on these pages. Good to see Rajesh Gopie handle such a demanding role.




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