The performance year kicks off in grand style with the US Woordfees, the first of the country’s arts festivals. DIANE DE BEER highlights some of the theatrical diversity in the programme of the Stellenbosch-based festival:
In her welcome foreword to this year’s festival guide, Director of the Woordfees, Saartjie Botha, points to the political dilemma in the country and how that sometimes detracts from the art festivals. But she’s optimistic. “The world of the arts is a gentler place,” she says.“It is confrontational sometimes – and it should be, but it is a world focussed on humanity. And finally creates understanding and empathy for that humanity.”
The University of Stellenbosch Woordfees, the annual arts festival with books as its heartbeat, runs from March 1 to 10 with a programme that has grown through the years and theatre arguably the one that has benefited most – and it needs that more than ever right now. But so do the audiences to get them thinking and talking. Right or wrong, arts festivals have become a lifeline for artists, and for many, one of the few times they have the opportunity to exercise their craft.
Apart from an extensive discourse programme which covers anything from the state of the nation to financial health as well as many book and author-related discussions, their entertainment and arts reach is an embracing one with fine arts, music (classical, jazz and pop), film, stand-up as well children’s theatre all given a strong platform. And added to that is WOW (Words Open Worlds), an empowerment project focussing on the youth of previously disadvantaged communities, which also includes the largest spelling competition in the country sponsored by Sanlam.
Theatre lovers will know that they must add the Woordfees to their calendar with a programme that this year especially sets the benchmark for the rest of the country and times ahead. It is a festival that benefits from its university connection as well as a community that supports the arts and has a strong cultural understanding. But it has also broadened its reach which has meant that its artistic offering has extraordinary depth and variety and that’s exciting. Diversity in the arts – especially in this country – is the only way to go.
Director Saartjie Botha sets the tone with a piece that is branded both comedy and drama titled Toutjies en Ferreira with two directors, Wolfie Britz and Nicole Holm and a cast to die for, including Frank Opperman, Anthea Thompson, Aphiwe Livi, Malan Steyn, Melanie Scholtz and Antoinette Kellerman. If you have ever wondered about the backstage chaos an hour before the show starts at a festival, this is a rare glimpse into that world bolstered by drama and delicious comedy.
And launching into the stratosphere, extraordinary theatre maker Brett Bailey debuts with a new work, Samson, described as dance-musical theatre based on the Old Testament values of domination, treason and rebellion yet set in today’s world of political extremism, inequality, expatriation and violence. In the spotlight are opera, choirs, animation and electronic music and the vibe promises the brilliant theatre maker is anarchistic.
He explains that Samson brings the Old Testament story crashing into the 21st century, setting the myth of love, betrayal, ethnic tensions and violent revenge within our complex era. “I’ve been working on the piece for around 18 months, so it has been a very thorough process. I’m blessed to be working with some stellar collaborators: Vincent Mantsoe as choreographer, and Shane Cooper as composer. With a live band playing a very contemporary electronic score, huge projections, and some great voices and performers, we aim to deliver something very special.” Prospective audiences should take note.
In classical vein Sylvaine Strike follows last year’s inspired Sam Shepard with Beckett’s Endgame with Antoinette Kellerman, Andrew Buckland, Rob van Vuuren and Soli Philander. It has already had a sold-out season at the Baxter with Strike unleashing her magic with powerhouse performances as she dissects the playwright’s exploration of relationships between the controllers and the controlled. Her interpretations are unique, from this time and dealing with the human condition.
Director Marthinus Basson is a name with immediate appeal and with Antjie Krog’s Mi(SA)- Die Nuwe Verbond – ‘n Misorde vir die Universum (The New Covenant – a Disorder for the Universe) and a cast of singers that includes Amanda Strydom, Cecilia Rangwanasha (soprano), Makudupanyane Senaoana (tenor), Ané Pretorius (harpsichord), Erik Dippenaar (piano) and the Cape Town Opera Choir, fireworks are predicted. It is a complex thing (a Basson trait), with a trio of works, the Missa Luba, the Missa Criola and Krog’s new work with music by Antoni Schonken in conversation with the established and celebrated works.Basson pulls it all together with a blend of rites and liturgy to create a contemporary South African soundstage predominantly in Afrikaans but also adding many tongues like Greek, Latin, English, Xhosa and Khoisan words. The choir also brings depth to the texture with individuals telling their own stories and where they come from.
Other English productions include Carpets, a text which first surfaced at last year’s third Text Market initiated by Hugo Theart from Kunste Onbeperk (KKNK). With the help of the Baxter (which hosts the event) as well as NATI (National AfrikaansTheatre Iniative), new texts are constantly being developed and evaluated with some selected to be further developed and staged at the different festivals. At the last Market CEO of the Baxter Theatre Lara Foot added R100 000 to the sponsorship which was matched by NATI for 2019 with the intent of expanding the Text Market to include Xhosa texts in addition to Afrikaans and English. She stressed the importance of developing new voices – and also exposure of the different cultures to one another.And whileJenine Collocott; Carpets wasn’t one of the winning texts, it was selected for a performance at the Text Market where it has benefitted from that exposure. Playwright and director Caitlin Wiggil has written an intriguing story about an agoraphobic woman unable to leave her house because of an earlier trauma.
Two playwrights who were rewarded with writer’s bursaries will be presenting plays: Herschelle Benjamin with Slavenhuis 39 explores what it means to be a person of colour while Du Toit Albertze homes in on a young transgender woman who returns to her birthplace in Klip Kween to investigate her past. She sacrifices her last bit of sanity to go back to Namakwaland to reclaim her innocence from the local pastor. “The narrative becomes just as blurred as the characters’ morality when the pastor’s new victim becomes intertwined in this Christmas play-like tragedy,” explains the playwright.
“Director Jason (Jacobs) and I strive to honour the sisters before us, the daughters of District Six. Also to remind the ‘ooms en tannies’ of transgender existence and exposing the trans- and homophobic religious leaders still abusing their power.”. It’s important that all of this be talked about. “There are too many of us who hide away like vampires. Hopefully these stories will kick some of them out of the closets!”
Both of these young playwrights are worth checking out. It is early in their writing careers, but they have already made their mark as they tell stories that open new worlds.Another transgender story titled Rokkie showcases a 48 year old transgender woman from the Cape Flats, and is the solo debut of Charlton George, an actor with extraordinary talents; while Craig Morris returns with one of his breathtaking performances in Greig Coetzee’s Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny.
It’s also going to be fascinating watching James Cairns switch to Afrikaans in his solo show Dirt (which he has translated as Stof), directed by Jenine Collocott, who is also in charge of the family-orientated clown show Babbelagtig with an extraordinary comedy ensemble with Jemma Kahn, Roberto Pombo, De Klerk Oelofse, Dean Bailie, Klara van Wyk, Thami Baba and David Viviers.
Marching in step is the Gerrit Schoonhoven-directed two-hander with partners Elize Cawood and Wilson Dunster in Narkose (Anesthesia). Two old clowns, Koos and Koos, are down and out but determined the show must go on. This talented trio have a way of sprinkling fairy dust whenever on stage, even when they gently let rip with the truth. Louis Roux, a young playwright, is helping with the text.
And finally, with a title like GodgOdgoD it’s hard to resist. It has already reaped some rewards with a cast as versatile as Charlton George, Ilana Cilliers and Wolf Britz. Described as experimental, language isn’t the star as the company explores identity, who we are, where we come from and exploding the myths and theories that want to determine the way we live.
That’s only a handful, a starting point especially if English theatre is more accessible at this mainly Afrikaans festival. But do yourself a favour, go online and have a look at their programme which is also available in English. Be prepared to be overwhelmed. It is a staggering offering from the arts in all its glorious diversity.