“The Alchemy of Words” plays with different disciplines creatively


alchemy of words

Photographer: Dee-Ann Kaaijk

After premiering with a sold-out run at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, Naomi van Niekerk’s The Alchemy of Words will be touring Southern Africa: landing in Johannesburg at the Market Lab’s Ramolao Makhene theatre from Thursday to 1 October, on 5 and 6 October at Cape Town’s Theatre Arts Admin Collective, 11 October at CCFM in Maputo and on October 14 and 15 at the Etienne Rousseau Theatre in Sasolburg.

Arthur Rimbaud, says Van Niekerk, for those who don’t know, is regarded as the ‘enfant terrible’ of French poetry who published his first immortal poem at the age of 16 only to completely abandon writing poetry at the age of 21! During this short period he managed to create a body of work that has had a profound impact on the poetry of his own time and on that of the 20th Century. André Breton, Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Jim Morrison are some of the artists and musicians that have been influenced by his writing.

Who is this literary pioneer and creative genius who continues to receive letters from fans all over the world even 123 years after his death?

I am now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I am working at turning myself into a seer… The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering but one must be strong and be born a poet… – Arthur Rimbaud, 1871.

In The Alchemy of Words, three artists from different disciplines –puppetry, film and music – search to capture the enigma of this French poet and what it means to be a pioneer. It aims to be an immersive experience that combines artistic projections, puppetry and live music inspired by the diverse imagery from Rimbaud’s poems – smoke filled battlefields, the lush countryside of the French Ardennes, colourful vowels, crimson seas and more.

Naomi van Niekerk

Van Niekerk’s personal affinity to Rimbaud started when she studied for three years in a small town in northern France, Charleville-Mézières which also happens to be the birth town of Rimbaud. His face is everywhere and all the shops are named after him. “I discovered his poetry and started translating it from French with a dictionary (as part of learning the  language) and was intrigued though I never really got into it, it was too complex!”

If you have seen any of Van Niekerk’s collaborations, you will know that she works in a unique way. “I don’t describe or see myself as a theatre-maker. I’m an artist and performance is one of the mediums I work with,” she explains.  “I’ve always been working in many mediums such as scenography, puppetry, filmmaking and most recently printmaking. I was always drawn to shadow puppetry because it fits into a frame like a graphic novel and within that frame anything is possible. My light box gives me the same freedom – to create a world in a frame without needing too much. In my case some sand, cardboard and scissors… I also love to draw, its an obsession that started when I studied in France and could not speak French, it was a way of communicating ideas and absorbing new experiences.”

Experiencing her work on stage is like seeing many different artworks appear and disappear as you watch them being made.

partners at play

With The Alchemy of Words, she collaborates with two artists, composer Arnaud van Vliet (a regular collaborator) and puppeteer Yoann Pencolé, someone she studied with in France. It wasn’t an easy process because of living on different continents, but Van Vliet who is also the dramaturge of the piece, selected a series of Rimbaud poetry and set it to music. During a short time together in June (just before the National Arts Festival where the piece premiered) Pencolé and Van Niekerk would work out scenes which Van Vliet would see in the evenings and critique. “The music existed before we started and so did many of the projected imagery. Our challenge was to create a narrative thread,” explains Van Niekerk.

While she is currently hooked on film, she enjoys working in different mediums and the one feeds off the other. “With theatre it feels like I’m taking my prints/drawings off the gallery walls and into the street, making it accessible to a broader public than the elite Fine Art community. Theatre is a shared experience that happens once, within a specific framework of time. The performance then continues to exist in the memory of the audience.”

She believes that The Alchemy of Words has wide appeal. “Some people connect with the words of Rimbaud’s poetry, others enjoy the visuals and the music and we’ve had some fantastic responses from children as well. Anyone who would like to engage with imagery and poetry on both emotional and intellectual level, should see it.”

“This is one of my goals – giving the public a memory that they can linger on.”

  • This collaboration between South African and French artists was made possible by the generous support of the French Institute of South Africa (IFAS)