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THEATRE AT NAF (article first published : 2006-05-13)

The world première of a new play by maestro Athol Fugard and a new production of the classic Sizwe Banzi is Dead with the original cast at the National Arts Festival (Grahamstown, June 29 to July 8), are two of the season's great moments that will be remembered in the annals of South African theatre.

In 1975 John Kani and Winston Ntshona scooped a Tony Award in New York for Sizwe Banzi is Dead, an apartheid piece about a township photographer which they created with Athol Fugard. This year they fire up the magnetism again with Aubrey Sekhabi as director. Vying for top billing with this momentous event, Fugard's new play, Booitjie and the Oubaas, is a Baxter Theatre production directed by Janice Honeyman and featuring Marius Weyers, Christo Davids and Mary Daniels. This is the mature, heart-warming Fugard infused with reconciliation and compassion.

A number of other productions confirm the broadening reach and regenerative power of South African theatre arts. Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Theatre, Sylvaine Strike co-devised, co-directs and performs in Coupé with her cast: Sue Pam Grant (co-director), Gerard Bester and Brian Webber. With music composed and performed by Philip Miller, this Fortune Cookie Theatre Company presentation promises a memorable ticket to tour the whimsies of the South African psyche. More trains and numerous other weird and wonderful transportations drive the hectic narrative pace in Around the World in 80 Days, adapted from the popular Victorian novel by New York's Mark Brown and presented by Pieter Toerien Productions. Alan Swerdlow directs with Graham Hopkins in the leading role. It's on a bus that the main character in The Suitcase (a short story by Es'kia Mphahlele) precipitates a frightening sequence of life-changing events. He picks up a piece of lost luggage in a desperate attempt to provide for his pregnant wife. James Ngcobo adapted the story and directs this Market Theatre production.

Poverty and its political resonances are the fulcrum for Wathint' Abafazi Wathint' Imbokodo (You Strike a Woman You Strike a Rock), a Sibikwa Theatre Company production, featuring Connie Chiume, Mary Twala and Busi Zokufa. Commemorating the women's march to the Union Buildings in Pretoria 50 years ago, director Phyllis Klotz revisits the timeless classic she helped create in 1986. The themes are as vividly relevant today as they were then. The tension between events and the way contemporary news media interpret and record them is the subtext for The Shooting Gallery, a high-tech and innovative Glasshouse (Netherlands) production presented by the Market Theatre. Wits graduate Catherine Henegan conceived, directed and narrates - she was initially inspired by the book The Bang Bang Club which chronicles the fear-addiction of South African conflict photographers.

From the broad canvas of world events, The Boy who Fell from the Roof shifts into close-focus on the heroism and despair that plays out among young South African adults in ordinary suburbs. Juliet Jenkin's exquisite observation and sophisticated dramatisation makes this one of the most exciting pieces of theatre to come out of the Artscape New Writing programme. Direction is by Roy Sargeant. Another stellar example of terrific theatre driven by incentives and development programmes, Hans Pienaar's Three Dozen Roses (directed by André Stoltz), won the Jury Award for Best Script, One- and Two-hander Category, in the NLDTF/PANSA Festival of Contemporary Theatre Readings 2005. It's a duo of nimble riffs that take today's urban morals and mores for a whirl.

An engaging experience for the whole family, Red Earth is a collaboration between Dutch puppet company (Speeltheater Holland) and South Africa's Sisonke Arts. Director Onny Huisink created the extraordinary puppets and set and the script is by Saskia Janse. Singing, dancing puppeteer/actors Macebo Mavuso and Tau Qwelane tell the story of a stork who migrates between Europe and Mzantsi Africa. Can he really ever understand events like the prophecy that the Xhosa could be rid of their enemies if they killed their cattle and burned their food stores? More fun awaits families on the free Street Theatre programme. Fotobot - rainbowNOTION.com - invites every festino to immortalise a personal moment of self-representation. This mobile internet portrait robot clings to the inside of a shop window. You check your pose in the monitor and then take your picture via a movement sensor. All the self-portraits will be posted on the Internet in a huge festival family portrait gallery. The project is brought to the Festival courtesy of the Pro-Helvetia Arts Council of Switzerland.

The inimitable Ellis Pearson and Bheki Mkhwane are back with a new tale from their fabulous story village. Accompanied by traditional musician Lwazi Zorro Xaba, they tell of The Hungry Heart and a dangerous appetite that can eat you up. Featuring four performers from the Rhodes University Drama Department, Heike Gehring's Expeditions to the Baobab Tree (adapted from the Wilma Stockenström novel) follows an abandoned slave girl on a sensory journey through a magical landscape.

The central character of Camille's Way, written and directed by Jean van Elden, is also on a journey of self-discovery, this time full of fun and games. A discontented giraffe gets a spotty hide and a long neck before she learns to be satisfied with the way things are. The young thespians from Grahamstown's Eluxolweni Children's Shelter prove the goings on at a taxi-rank are more dramatic than any journey. Using mime, puppetry and gumboot dance, they conjure up the wild energies of opposing factions and their umshayeli (drivers), the hawkers and the commuters in Sho't cut Corner, a collaboration with Ubom! Eastern Cape Drama Company.

Twelve brand new productions on the Student Theatre programme form a sampler of emerging talents and striking new performance languages from tertiary training institutions round the country. The survival imperative comes up again and again as thinking young South Africans engage with the hopes and fears of the upcoming generation.

More fresh theatre treats are scheduled at The Studio (a venue dedicated to emerging Eastern Cape artists). Groups from Idutywa and Butterworth fuse storytelling, dance and drama in Umtshato (The Marriage) - a celebration of Xhosa wedding traditions. Under Pressure, directed by Thulani Mene is a cautionary tale for innocent country girls dreaming of city life. Breaking the Silence sees the Dordrecht-based Butterflies Drama Group tackle another social problem: abuse in the home. The Clay Flute introduces a lighter note. This lively jazz music drama presented by the EastCape Opera Company features music composed by Bruce Cassidy, and vocal direction by Gwyneth Lloyd. The cast is drawn from East London, Fort Hare University, and Grahamstown.

To top off this feast of theatre, the Fringe Festival programme features numerous pieces by new talents and established names. Further details are available in the free Festival Booking Kit, which is available from selected Standard Bank branches and Computicket outlets nationwide.

The Eastern Cape Government, Standard Bank, the SABC, the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund and the National Arts Council are the proud sponsors of the National Arts Festival, Grahamstown.




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