Author Vincent Pienaar is Riding the Wave with his Own Special Tsunami

BK Too many tsunamis

Author Vincent Pienaar is experiencing his own tsunami with his latest book Too Many Tsunamis – a tale of love, light. He tells DIANE DE BEER why:

 

With a book titled Too Many Tsunamis – a tale of love, light, and incidental humour (Penguin Books) and an opening sentence that deals with suicide – more the dilemma of being or not being – author Vincent Pienaar’s latest book is hard to resist.

And if you don’t know who this journalist/writer is, he gives some clues with a dedication that includes names like Gabriel García Márquez, Etienne Leroux, Damon Runyon, Eugène Marais, Virginia Woolf, Elmore Leonard, Akira Kurosawa, Lennon-McCartney and Harrison for the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night… and more.

All of these are hints of what’s to come. And it’s joyous. “When I wrote Too Many Tsunamis, I deliberately decided to write an amusing story that didn’t explore the standard ‘troubled country’ story lines. I set out to write a story that was only incidentally set in South Africa. I love it when people tell me things like ‘this doesn’t feel like a typical South African story’. While I don’t want to speculate what a ‘typical’ South African story is, I happily admit that I wanted to write (let’s call it) a universal story. I’m fascinated by the way storytelling has changed (catering for a faster world) and I absolutely love the challenge of telling my story at breakneck speed.”

I had asked him about what I perceived as a breakaway from his usual style and while he confessed to not having a particular style, “I do believe this is the style I want to retain. It really works for me.” It did for me too.

The story is fast-paced which, as he explains above, was the idea but there’s a filmic element to the storytelling that makes everyone on the page come alive.

“If Bert truly wants to commit suicide he certainly finds a number of reasons why he simply can’t do it right now. He is always working on a magnificent bestseller, but it is never identified – and whether it exists or not is for the reader to decide. He lives in a fantasy world, where he talks to his conscience – or Conscience the character – who does not necessarily like or support him.

“His mother – or Mother – spends a lot of time getting him a job or a woman and if the gods allow it, both.

“My favourite character is Light, an unkempt young woman who appears to be deliberately slovenly, slow, and certainly deliberately overweight. The character development (and I really enjoy this) comes from Light – and what a gem she turns out to be! Mother, Bert, Light and Conscience are the main protagonists I suppose, but I have populated the book with many minor characters who are all quirky in their own right. (Boring people really are boring, aren’t they?)

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Author/journalist Vincent Pienaar.

“The story, although not a mystery or anything like that, has a number of reveals that I hope induces the occasional minor gasp.

“It’s a style that is balanced (as you say) on a knife’s edge a little and might not have worked. To maintain the right balance is quite something.”

Following this Pienaar monologue, as the interviewer, I have to make a confession. It was unfair to ask a journalist to tell us about his book, because if like Pienaar, you’ve just invented this incidental magical tale, your response will have the same effect – in essence writing the interview. Apologies though, but in this instance, no one can talk about his book better than the author.

Talking about the style, he immediately used a musical metaphor and the names he drops into his book and the conversation explain why.

“I have developed a style with surprises. I enjoy the ‘duel’ with the reader to offer something unexpected every now and then, to keep the reader just a little off balance (and interested). I have, over the years, developed an aversion for ‘dead words. I don’t want to write them, and I don’t want to read them. (With this my mentors Jo-Anne Richards and Richard Benyon helped me to weed them out and slaughter them.) I like the idea of what you call the ‘knife edge’ because it is an indication that the action propels this story.” Which it certainly does.

“I applied a different rhythm to different sections. It’s deliberate and it is an attempt to make it easy for the reader to remain interested.

“A late (erudite) friend said the difference between jazz and blues is that jazz is performed for the enjoyment of the musicians themselves and blues is performed for the satisfaction of the audience. There is often that part in a jazz piece where the audience sits patiently and reverently while the musician is ‘performing his art’. I, too, don’t mind sitting quietly waiting for solos to end. But when I write, I write the blues. I work at making my writing for the benefit of the reader and not the writer.”

He’s achieved all that and more. Perhaps there no longer is a typical South African novel although we all know what he means when living in a country where reality has for most of our lives felt like fiction. How could writers not go there?

But Pienaar wanted to write something different and he achieved that with aplomb.

“A movie? I wish! I know that I write scenes instead of chapters. If I have helped the reader to forget about the words and to see the images, I’m very happy. I wanted to write a book that would make people smile. Believe me, the style was deliberate and no coincidence.”

How could it not be? When (not if) you read the book, you will discover what that means. It’s like slipping into a world of merry-go-rounds, slightly crazy, yet delightfully so. And it keeps you smiling even when there are the occasional sad undertones.

Elaborating about his own reading preferences even if he lists some in his dedication in the book, he comes up with the following:

“In my pursuit of universal writing, I have drifted further and further into the arms of the classics. I read, with admiration, works by Virginia Woolf and sections of Anthony Powell and the short novels of John Steinbeck. I have read and re-read two short novels, Breakfast at Tiffany’s (not the terrible movie) and The Great Gatsby. They both have great plots and subplots and no dead words. I ponder why they are so great. I read Hunter S Thompson as a study in breathing fire. Would he write: ‘The car drove off at high speed.’? Fuck no! He might possibly write: ‘Tyres howled and smoke billowed as the car shot from the sidewalk into the fast lane.’ Yeah!

“I watch a lot of movies and very often the classics. I think His Girl Friday (from 1941!) has the best dialogue I have ever seen. Some Like it Hot is a study in timing. The Lion in Winter has acerbic dialogue that needs to be watched in two-minute sections. (O’Toole to Hepburn: ‘Will you give me a moment’s peace, woman?!’ Hepburn: ‘I can give you eternal peace. Now there’s a thought.’)”

With Pienaar doing most of the talking, hopefully he has said enough to get you reading – and you should. Apart from the battered-feeling Bert who has written a brilliant suicide note but can’t quite get to the brilliant suicide, it’s a deliciously discordant romantic romp with much more than the haphazard Bert, although he is the perfect anti-hero in today’s world, that seldomly has you smiling for the right reasons.

Pienaar brilliantly manages that.

To top it all, his book has just been picked for the 2019 Longlist of the Sunday Times Literary Awards’ Barry Ronge Fiction Prize.

 

 

A Perfect Night to Catch The Music

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The gang from The Buckfever Underground with Toast Coetzer responsible for the spoken word.

Diane be Beer

 

What does one do on an Easter Sunday night in Tshwane?

The city is empty – ish. Of those left, most are doing the family thing and then an unexpected house concert is announced in Rietondale.

Journalist/editor Marguerite Robinson is hosting the affair and The Buckfever Underground (with SkreeAlleen for this leg of the trip), would turn up and around in Tshwane for the final leg of their most recent tour.

Timing was perfect and even if the weather promised to deliver a storm, it was one of those nights where the wind lights up for a brief moment and then disappears. The rest of the evening had signs of the winter chill but nothing too hectic and under a large avocado tree in a quiet suburb, a group of music/poetry enthusiasts turned up with their chairs, cushions, snacks and wine for an evening interlude of poetic musical bliss.

Vocalist/performer Toast Coetzer (with Stephen Timms on drums, Michael Currin on guitar and guest artist, Gerhard Barnard, on bass, previously from Brixton Moord en Roof) calls Buckfever a random spoken word band which captures it best, but without thinking too much about it, their performance was perfect for that particular night on that particular weekend.

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Producer Giep van Zyl in charge of the lights.

While gathering around, fairy lights were being added for festive effect and someone was heard murmuring about sound checks which might be more effective. But none of this had any impact and the lights brought magic and lightness while the sound was perfection – under the night skies.

Art was the genie on the night, a random night with a random band but nothing about the spoken word or the underpinning experimental music was any of that. It was balm at the start of a chilly season, had everyone smiling, gasping and simply listening to the random yet thoughtful words held by music that seemed to attach to those thoughts and prevent them from flying off without just some space to linger a little longer.

It is about what takes our hearts and minds a’wandering, how these sentences strung together in simplicity but also words selected with care and cunning, allow us to view things anew, from a different stance or simply just to listen and allow them to wash over you.

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SkreeAlleen

Artists at work are always a sight to behold and on this particular night it started with SkreeAlleen (Willem Samuel), a  guitarist/songwriter whose name captures his style with an offhand charm and embracing style which does its own special thing under a tree in a suburb somewhere on a Sunday night. His songs on the night were mostly around the theme of love – whether lost or found or simply explored.

But then to taking on a completely different rhythm, dominated and determined by both voice and  music, The Buckfever Underground get rocking, gently, while Toast Coetzer speaks in words that sometimes sing, at others sting or stupefies and stuns – all of these.

If on a night you slip into a chair and listen to a solo performer and a random spoken word band, neither of which you know, it is especially meaningful to listen, the be given the glimpse of the minds of others, to catch something as offbeat as a protest smart phone song reminiscent of Johannes Kerkorrel’s Sit Dit Af which was more personal because he was referring to PW on the TV – or was it. Smart phones are as invasive, persistent and sustained as politicians selling their usually self-serving wares. The more things change, they say…

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Captivated by the music.

Fortunately everyone listening would have attached their own thoughts to the Coetzer lyrics – as poetry often does, it allows for that, almost like slipping down a rabbit’s warren.

Luckily that’s not all the night was about. It reminded one of how easily one can escape in the arts, how it takes you off and away and how hard artists have to work, just to make a buck – and hardly living.

But these talented performers all have many strings to their bow, and probably the musical one is also their escape. After all, The Buckfever Underground is celebrating 20 years and they would be doing this for love rather than money.

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Chef Hennie Fisher’s brilliant garden picnic food

That’s what artists do. They put their wares out there for you to catch if you can. And like on Sunday night, we were the blessed ones.

Catch their final show in Darling on Freedom Day or check them on the internet if you don’t know them. They’re quite something.

Here’s to another 20!

 

The Arts Show Us The Way – Joyously

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The Voice SA with Riana Nel, Ricky Rick, Lira and Francois van Coke.

There is so much to celebrate when we consider our country and our people and the arts have a huge role to play says DIANE DE BEER:

 

Watching the first season of The Voice SA some time back, the overwhelming feeling was surprise at how specifically the format impacted this country.

It wasn’t that race or colour was an issue, it was precisely because it was taken out of the equation, with the judges turning their backs on singers vying for contestant status, that the magic happened and just kept rolling in.

With this current season and a change of judges with an unexpected dynamic, the impact seems even more emotionally driven. Lira is the only one from the first round and she is joined by Ricky Rick, Riana Nel and Francois van Coke. The fact that she speaks Afrikaans adds another dimension, but it could just as well have been Riana speaking Zulu, a similar impact would have occurred. As South Africans we know these cross-cultural exchanges are still too rare and always hugely appreciated and acknowledged.

The audience shows that all the time and just seeing South Africans come together with such gusto is such a treat – especially now. It’s a reminder of who we are which isn’t always the message out there.

I haven’t calculated or counted but it feels as if the majority of contestants are either of colour or Afrikaans-speaking and that also makes for some fascinating stereotypes biting the dust. And the reaction of the judges as well as the audience which is as mixed as it should be, reflects the importance of reconciliation – still.

There’s huge reaction when a black contestant for example translates a popular Afrikaans song into Zulu because she loved the song but didn’t understand the lyrics, or when a prospective contestant chooses a judge and that choice seems at odds with their race. When someone singing in Afrikaans for example, goes for Ricky who doesn’t understand their home language, it is powerful in the context of our country. And then Francois van Coke remarks on the lyrics of a Zulu song obviously understanding the language. It’s lekker!

Mentioned in any other context, all of this would be difficult to understand, but in a country with our past, small gestures still have massive impact and what should be expected is still unexpected. Yet the goodwill is overwhelming and in our current climate of political chaos and upheaval, like a breath of fresh air on a Sunday night.

When people are in a creative space and left to their own devices, it seems to result in only good things even when there’s a competitive edge. Especially in this country where the arts had such impact during the struggle years, we should not be surprised by the healing impact that is possible even in these random spaces.

Hugh Masekela used to say that white people were also deprived during the apartheid years because they were cut off from the creativity of most of their countrymen and when you listen to the music and how it is interpreted by different language groups and the impact that has on everyone, it reinforces the strength of diversity. Music in all its different forms (like sport) is a universal language which is again so clear as this one plays out.

It’s such a neutral space for people to come together to play and that’s where South Africans show how their diversity comes together powerfully and why people are truly the strength of this country. When we get together and embrace, we can truly be proudly South African – and are.

The arts are in dire straits in this country because funding has been impossible in these dire times. Yet even with these odds, artists will find a way to perform and get the message out there. That’s also in spite of arts coverage which has dwindled disastrously in traditional media. So strange that because I would have thought especially die-hard newspaper readers would want more of that.

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Rooilug with Jefferson Dirks-Korkee Picture: Retha Ferguson

Watching two recent performances from two young coloured men at consecutive Afrikaans art festivals, both dealing with what felt like very personal stories if not of them individually, from the community or perhaps both, the power of storytelling and eventual healing for both performer and audiences was rewarding.

Both Jefferson J Dirks-Korkee with his luminous Rooilug at the US Woordfees and Carlo Daniels with the innovative Klippies van die Grond at the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) announced their strong presence in this artistic space with stories that were self-written or with some help.

The talent though was evident in these two young men who entered a world outside their comfort zone, though one that had flung open its arms to encourage new voices from a wider South African community to tell their stories. This is how we get to know and understand one another. That’s always been the most positive strength of the arts in this country.

It is in our stories that we find common ground and empathy for the other’s circumstances. That’s what especially these Afrikaans festivals have done almost unwittingly. Because there’s a real desire (growing stronger in this past decade) to be inclusive, people get to hear from one another and more often than not, it is the similarities rather than the differences that come into play. But it is also the chance to acknowledge the humanity in us all that adds to the insight.

Living in a country so fraught with racial inequality – still – where one group remains empowered to a much greater degree than another, it is in the arts where we can stand still, tell our stories, reach out and start understanding and embracing the lives of others.

Embracing diversity is not encouraged in our world today, but our past has handed us some insight and the gift of understanding how easy it is to turn our backs but how rewarding it is to celebrate the diversity.

With yet another Freedom Day on the horizon, it’s about time.

Viva the Arts Viva!

 

 

 

 

Royal rewards for Koningin Lear led by Marthinus Basson at 25th KKNK Festival

PICTURES: Hans van der Veen

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The cast led by Antoinette Kellermann in Koningin Lear

With Koningin Lear rewarded in all the categories they were nominated for at the Klein Karoo National Arts Kanna Awards – eight of them – it was an extraordinary year for theatre. DIANE DE BEER reviews the spectacular 25th anniversary of the KKNK and the way festivals have changed hearts and minds. (See full list of winners below.):

 

While waiting for a show to begin, a festival goer went up to actress Cintaine Schutte and thanked her for the kind of work they were doing. She was referring to Huishou, a play that spotlights a same-sex couple.

What was more interesting was her age (approximately 70 plus) and that she was an inhabitant of Oudtshoorn and she was waiting to see Rokkie with Charlton George telling a transgender story. “I don’t know about these worlds,” she explained and that’s why she specifically chose these two particular plays, to broaden her scope.

That’s what an arts festival can mean to a rural community and its people. Through the 25 years of its existence, those of us who have been attending and reporting on the festival for all those years have noticed the audiences mature in their appreciation of a world that they might not always recognise or be familiar with and embrace it in all its diversity.

In the process of writing this, I watched a BBC arts programme Front Row discussing censorship and the anxiety amongst the public in both Britain and Brazil about a play dealing with a transgender Jesus written and performed by Jo Clifford.

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Rudi van der Merwe and Oyama Mbopa (right) in Lovers, Dogs and Rainbows.

To even see a production like Rudi van der Merwe’s Lovers, Dogs and Rainbows supported by Pro Helvetia Swiss Arts Council would not have happened a decade ago without a fuss. This is the kind of innovation that all arts festivals long for – worldwide.

It’s an agonising balancing act for the artistic directors to serve the widest possible community while creating an identity for the festival which will appeal to newcomers but also those searching for the extraordinary.

Van der Merwe’s physical theatre piece told a story of almost excruciating emotional transformation as the young boy tried to establish his identity in the small rural town of Calvinia. Now based in Geneva, he interrogates his past with a documentary shot in the town of his youth in 2017 and played as a backdrop (yet centre stage) while Van der Merwe and Oyama Mbopa move from the shadows into the light simply to disappear again in a physical drama all its own.

Marginalised places and people dominate his playground as the camera lingers on the coloured and the LGBTQ community, as among the most displaced in this world, where the shock of apartheid still lingers and people and livestock from cattle to dogs are all treated harshly as if that is the way of the world.

Van der Merwe and Mbopa move in and out of elaborate scenes dressing up while moving from darkness to spotlight – often in chains as their lives must have felt to them in this isolated world where people are all trying to survive. Living on the edge wasn’t even part of that equation.

In conclusion it is in a spoken/printed letter to his father in his new home language – French screened as part of the documentary that he breaks out of any prescribed mould, any pretense of who he is emotionally and physically and yet his message is shrouded in a kind of secrecy as if he still cannot shout too loudly. Or might he be in a place where it doesn’t matter?

Not all of the translation of the letter is visible all of the time, so one snatches at something here and there.  I thought that in a show planned in minute detail, there’s a message, perhaps a warning here, that everything is not as it should be even if he has embraced his new world, who he is and how he wants to tell his story. But he corrected this blurring of the message after two shows by moving to the side.

It is the approach and the execution, the content and the substance that all contribute to this extraordinary performance that grabs one by the throat and doesn’t let go for the longest time.

Antoinette Kellerman in Koningin Lear
The phenomenal Antoinette Kellermann in Koningin Lear

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the magnificent troika of playwright Tom Lanoye, translator Antjie Krog and director Marthinus Basson. Koningin Lear is a majestic production worthy of the 25th anniversary of the KKNK with Antoinette Kellermann in the role of a lifetime (and her career as we all know, is not a shabby one).

But Lanoye, having said that the role was created with her in mind, has written a part for the ages, on a scale that not many women get the chance to play. From the moment she enters the stage and grabs the attention, dressed to kill, until she collapses in a bundle of bones in a shabby slip of a petticoat with her darling son dead in her arms, she is allowed to tower above them all with a might that obliterates, until it turns on her in similarly cruel fashion.

With a script that would have many on their knees, but that Kellermann masters powerfully, her queen of the business world storms majestically but stumbles as disastrously as she demands that her three sons vie for the family riches by declaring their undying love.

It’s in the shading of her character and her speech that Kellermann astounds in this almost three hour play as she paints a picture of a woman fading both mentally and physically as she is ravaged by the worlds she was seen to have conquered yet is ready to relinquish – or so she thinks. It’s about grandeur and grandiosity which falters as greed in every sphere becomes the overwhelming motivator.

Not only does Kellermann command the stage and the character physically, emotionally she gives it all in a role which demands this kind of effort. The work isn’t visible, and the results are riveting.

A New York Times quotation published in the book of the translated play from a review written by Paul Krugman of  Thomas Piketty’s Capital of the Twenty First Century captures the intent of this Lanoye flirtation with King Lear: We haven’t just gone back to the nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to “patrimonial capitalism”, in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties”.

And this dynastic aspect is glaringly explored and exploited in the three sons: Gregory (Neels van Jaarsveld playing the bully with brawn), Hendrik (Wilhelm van der Walt portraying his character’s smarmy self-serving mode) and Cornald (Edwin van der Walt as the gentler more caring sibling and in a contrasting scene-stealing junkie performance).

The eldest two brothers are supported by their differently conniving wives, Connie (a brilliant Anna-Mart van der Merwe as the flamboyantly brassy broad) and Alma (Ronalda Marais as the silent usurper whose roots tug at her better self but loses the battle).

A business-like André Roothman as the somewhat bewildered Kent and Matthew Stuurman as the carer and moral compass, Oleg, complete a cast that contributes and brilliantly balances the whole.

With all his design and directing flair on display, Basson began with clever casting because with a storming Kellermann in the lead of a play titled Koningin Lear, it could have been a lopsided production and it needed all the pieces to fit together.

None of this would have been possible without Antjie Krog’s staggering translation of Tom Lanoye’s Flemish text. She has such command of what she wants to say and how she says it that it gives a specific context, a gravitas as well as playfulness, all of which combine to make it such an exciting and textured work to both watch and listen to. It also allows the actors to spread their wings and with a director of Basson’s stature and vision, the guidance to make this one fly.

It deserves to be seen and theatre goers who understand the language should not let this one pass if there’s another opportunity. Many flew in specially and they were rewarded royally. (Presently a run is planned at The Baxter later this year and perhaps there’s a possibility at the final of the Afrikaans festivals in Potchefstroom).

Other notable artists include Sima Mashazi with her Miriam Makeba Story, a musical performance with the singer sharing a personal connection with the iconic songbird. Supported by the excellent jazz pianist Ramon Alexander, it was a simple yet compelling performance which allowed the music to shine as it should.

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Johnny Boskak with Craig Morris Picture: Retha Ferguson

Craig Morris travelled from the Woordfees with Johnny Boskak but this time he played in both English and Afrikaans. He says that the languages and their specific rhythms have interesting effects on the character, and it was fascinating to see it performed in Afrikaans with a smart translation. It’s a piece that has withstood the test of time driven by Morris’s physical approach to the role which takes audiences on a wild ride reminiscent for me of a film like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

And for the sheer joy of it, the delightful Springtime in which Hendrick-Jan de Stuntman meets Merel Kamp (Jos van Wees and Merel Kamp). Presented on an outside stage in front of the ABSA Auditorium for everyone to watch, the two actor/mime artistes were each hooked to a swing furnished with very lively springs which meant that their love story was told with a jaunty air and a jolliness that was mesmerising – entertainment supreme.

Naturally there was more, but if I had to put a few perfect shows together to make or break an arts festival, this would be it. A bouquet that incorporates something larger than life, something that pushes the gender boundaries, someone who captivates musically, a motormouth in motion and a buoyant romance of the sweetest kind.

JAKKALS EN WOLF ONBEPERKDEBUUT Gesinsvermaak ’n Kunste Onbepe
Devonecia Swartz as Best Newcomer in Jakkals en Wolf Onbeperk

The Kanna Awards:

Best literary contribution for her translation: Antjie Krog for Koningin Lear.

Best Production and Best Debut Production: Koningin Lear.

Best Actress: Antoinette Kellermann in Koningin Lear.

Best Actor: Craig Morris in Johnny Boskak voel ‘n bietjie…

Best Supporting Actress: Anna-Mart van der Merwe in Koningin Lear.

Best Sopporting Actor: Edwin van der Walt in Koningin Lear.

Best Director as well as Best Design: Marthinus Basson for Koningin Lear.

Best Musical contribution: Sima Mashazi for My Miriam Makeba Story

Best Newcomer: Devonecia Swartz in Jakkals en Wolf Onbeperk.

Herrie Prize for innovation: Rudi van der Merwe for Lovers, Dogs and Rainbows 

Best Visual Art: Ugandan Donald Wasswa and Kenyan Onyis Martin and their collective exhibition Imagining Tomorrow.

Best Technical contribution: Jaco Conradie

Special Service Kanna: Daleen Witbooi

 

 

 

Paradise is a Farm in Africa

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Pretty as a picture

DIANE DE BEER

 

If you are ever looking for the perfect getaway, Halfaampieskraal is heaven.

In their latest book Halfaampieskraal The Way we Live, the first quote reads “The perfect place to do nothing at all.”and it captures the farm which opens its arms to guests so generously and completely.

Turning off from the N2 at Caledon and driving in the Stanford direction, it is a part of the rolling wheat fields of the beautiful Overberg. It is still very much a working farm and when paging through The Way We Live, I was reminded of a friend’s 50th birthday celebrated there a few years back.

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The glamour of the past

It’s all about the place and its people, the way you become part of the farmstead while luxuriating on recliners under huge trees with homemade cocktails and unusual snacks while farm animals come and peek at the latest arrivals.

The rooms which are just behind the main house are drop-dead gorgeous and quite unique in the way they have been designed. This is obviously someone’s passion and it shines through.

Owner Jan-Georg Solms (with partner Cobus Geldenhuys) describes it as “curation of my favourite things – and lots of them”. He explains that with this being the family farm, he also inherited much of what is featured and he and partner have an annual breakaway to Greece where he often picked up objects, he lost his heart to. “I have an eye for pieces that can be fashioned differently and given a second life.”

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The charm of farm living

But he has stopped chasing new purchases and prefers appreciating beautiful objects in other homes and buildings rather than a personal desire to own even more. The rooms are done subtly but with a luxurious tint. “The idea is that you have to feel comfortable, as if you know the room intimately.” Included are heavy linen gowns, beds that are slightly larger and higher than the norm with down duvets stuffed with the feathers of their own geese, but in European weight.

The rooms are stocked with excellent coffee, buttermilk rusks and fresh fruit. Mosquito nets stand alert in season and bathrooms are oversized, all with open showers (wet rooms), some including baths and others, outside showers. Flowers fill all the rooms and the main house stoep, if you can tear yourself away from your room, is a favourite gathering spot to enjoy either sunrise or sunset.

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Interior at Halfaampieskraal

The main house which also has some rooms but is also the gathering place is a jumble of well-organised themes “which allows guests to peek around and lose themselves in flavours and textures of bygone eras”. The rooms have names like Plantation Room, Reading Room Officer’s Mess, Red Dining Room (with a 53-year-old post office wall-to-wall red carpet from his parents’ time) and Empty Room (filled with objects…) which gives you an idea of the feel and style of this quite extraordinary vintage farmstead.

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Dining in splendour

And with all this chic comfort, in addition, there’s the extraordinary delicious factor of the food. “We keep files of all our guests (with 60% of them being returns) and the menus we’ve served, not to repeat ourselves,” he responds when I ask him about our weekend meals. Many of the guests order some favourite from the previous menu though.

Their chef Marlette Scheltema has been with them for some time and has chef training, but she easily adapted to their style of cooking: simple food, generous, but not an overly loaded plate. “We draw a picture every time of what the plate will look like once the guests have dished up, when planning menus.

“Most food is served table/family buffet. We use what we have locally, simply because we want food less travelled.  Marlette now does almost all the cooking, and I get to taste everything!”

Our menu was as follows:

Friday casual evening with spanakopitas, lemon and tzatziki for starters, paella on the fire for mains, and a simple lemon-pudding;

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Three cheese breakfast soufflé-tart and Turkish cucumber;

Breakfast Saturday was the three cheese breakfast soufflé-tart, boerewors and the most amazing Turkish cucumber;

 

Saturday evening, the night of the celebration, started with canopies of toffee tomatoes and salmon-rolls. Starters: field- and porcini-mushroom soufflés, baked in cream and pecorino. Mains: home grown leg of mutton, cooked at 110 deg C for 9 hours, served with a green-oil-gremolata dressing. The sides included caramelized onions with branches of bay leaves; Potato Ann, upright butternut, courgette strips and small beetroots. Desert was an old fashioned croquembouche, with the crème patisserie flavoured with frangelico and decorated with pistachio brittle. Served with tiny liqueur milk shake shooters – and quite spectacular to suit the occasion.

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For those still standing, breakfast Sunday was the house standard Brekko-pan – a big pan, with small pork bangers, bacon, onions, garlic, cherry tomatoes, dried oregano and a bit of cream, baked slowly, with halved hard-boiled eggs added in the end. This was served with traditional vetkoek and jam. All breakfasts start with a fruit platter with their six-spice syrup and double cream yogurt and their own honey, freshly squeezed orange juice and extra strong coffee.

What you have is pretty much a breakaway weekend of fine farm dining in style with as much rest in-between as possible although the area offers much opportunity for exploring if you wish.

But first have a look in their latest coffee table book packed with the most beautiful pictures and recipes from the farm which will give you a chance to see for yourself if this is your idea of paradise – at a cost that isn’t prohibitive. Check their website for more information.

 

*You can buy Halfaampieskraal The Way we Live at www.kraal.biz also Wordsworth, Love books in Mellville and Exclusive Books. It won the South African Gourmand World Bookbooks award (category: Hotels)

 

 

2019 US Woordfees Meets Expectation with Excitement and Exploration

Samson picture by Nardus Engelbrecht
Brett Bailey’s spectacular Samson Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht

DIANE DE BEER

 

When a festival in these lean times boasts two productions the scale of the Marthinus Basson-directed MI(SA) and Brett Bailey’s Samson, there’s a certain expectation and excitement attached to the execution.

And the performances were no let-down. But it’ s also the magnitude of the input from many and on different levels to produce these shows that’s humbling.

Economics prohibit more work on this scale, especially as many of these shows don’t have a future because of costs, which makes a Bailey production, the first time at the Woordfees, so extraordinary.

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Marthinus Basson’s luminous MI(SA) Picture: Retha Ferguson

MI(SA), for example, was the brainchild of the CEO of the National Afrikaans Theatre Initiative (NATi) Cornelia Faasen, who initiated (and sponsored with Woordfees and Suidoosterfees) the production, which included the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Missa Luba, the Argentinean Misa Criolla and a new work by South African composer Antoni Schonken with a text Die Nuwe Verbond – ‘n misorde vir die universum by Antjie Krog.

That’s quite a mouthful, also to watch and experience, but so beautifully conceived and executed with a brilliant creative team from design to choreography to a choir who worked tirelessly to perform not only one but three different compositions in the same concert – which is what turned this into such a special encounter.

The nature of an arts festival isn’t always ideal for spectacle or pieces that ask much, but without them, it would disintegrate into a popcorn affair which would leave many dissatisfied. One simply has to bite the bullet to reap the rewards. And this was how I experienced this one.

I am a music lover rather than someone with the knowledge to review/critique but often in these instances, I think it adds rather than detracts from the experience. Listening to those who know their music discuss the merits of the production, there was both apprehension and certainty in equal measure, but I wallowed in the three different approaches, the rhythms, the instruments, the choreography by Ina Wichterich and Sifiso Kweyama (including a contortionist telling a compelling visual story in a completely different medium), Amanda Strydom who has done the Criolla before and with her distinctive tones could also recite Krog’s inventive text, the courageous choir, the soulful soloists and the splendid orchestra, who all contributed to something special.

I would have liked a second viewing, once was perhaps just too expansive to take it all in, but what was there to be absorbed was the perfect start to an arts festival. It will be performed again at the Suidoosterfees on April 28 at 2pm at Artscape.

And with Brett Bailey the conclusion, who could have asked for more. In typical fashion while describing the whole process in the festival paper, he also said in a discussion after the first show that he settled on Samson as the story because of the Pointer Sisters’ song Fire and he starts singing Well, Romeo and Juliet, Samson and Delilah…

But that’s Bailey who puts on a show with such fire that at first viewing one can’t help burning up. It took a second viewing, a luxury at an arts festival, to take in the full scale of this massive production. It can be overwhelming but once you sit back and allow the story to unfold with everything available; a compelling narrator, a brilliantly animated backdrop, actors/dancers/singers, music and musicians, in typical Bailey fashion, it’s all there as  he deals with a dysfunctional and destructive world in a way that tears at your heart.

It’s going to the National Arts Festival where most of his works have been shown locally. If you’re going feel blessed and book now.

Stof picture Retha Ferguson
Stof with James Cairns Picture: Retha Ferguson

Apart from these two superstars, Basson and Bailey, the festival also showcased some feverish solo productions from both experienced and young performers; James Cairns cleverly translating his Nick Warren text Dirt to Stof and thus finding a new audience in his faultless Afrikaans, directed by the innovative Jenine Collocott who also guided the bubbly Babbelagtig;

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Johnny Boskak with Craig Morris Picture: Retha Ferguson

Craig Morris who returned with old favourite Johnny Boskak (which he has also translated into Afrikaans for Oudtshoorn’s KKNK this week) and proves that a good performance will make a play last forever;

Rooilug picture Retha Ferguson
Rooilug with Jefferson Dirks-Korkee Picture: Retha Ferguson

and a new voice from Jefferson J Dirks-Korkee with Rooilug, an authentic tale of abuse and a performance of endearing charm.

Tien Duisend Ton picture Retha Ferguson
Tien Duisend Ton with Cintaine Schutte and Albert Pretorius Picture Retha Ferguson

Two-handers also held sway with Cintaine Schutte (opposite Albert Pretorius as the perfect foil) giving an astounding performance that leaves one breathless in the Nico Scheepers directed Tien Duisend Ton;

Die Road Trip met Brendon Daniels and Waldemar Schultz picture Retha Ferguson1
Die Road Trip with Brendon Daniels and Waldemar Schultz Picture; Retha Ferguson

with Brendon Daniels and Waldemar Schultz strikingly coming together in Die Road Trip, a festival winner with a clever text and a buddy theme that never alienates women, quite a rare thing. Both will be on show at the KKNK.

The other big production hitting hard was Sylvaine Strike’s magnificent vision of Beckett’s Endgame, never an easy text to engage with or execute. But with a blindingly brilliant performance by Andrew Buckland as Homm, the seriously silly adjutant played by Rob van Vuuren, as well as the hysterical Antoinette Kellerman and Soli Philander whose exquisite hands do most of the expressive talking, it was mesmerising in visual and emotional context.

Toutjies en Ferreira
Toutjies en Ferreira

Saartjie Botha’s Toutjies and Ferreira arrived with big-time Fiësta accolades in what could almost be described as a double bill, so different are the two halves. They’re even directed by different directors with Nicole Holm in charge of the first madcap backstage romp, while Wolfie Britz pretty much plays himself in that and then directs the emotionally charged stage show starring a luminous Frank Opperman and Joanie Combrink as parents who are packing up the belongings of their recently immigrated last child.

Two others are already settled in different countries with Combrink’s character confessing that they have children and grand-children on four continents. It’s an emotional rollercoaster with Kellerman’s director proclaiming madly that the theatre cannot exist without ladders, all of which flows into the loss of grieving parents unable to see that other avenues could make their load lighter.

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Die Gangsters Picture: Natalie Gabriels

Marthinus Basson describes Die Gangsters as one of his favourite productions giving a nod to the writer, Dr Ben Dehaeck. The piece was first performed at the Breughel Theatre in Cloetesville in memory of the inspired theatre maker and teacher, and now two years later it has returned with new life and an ensemble cast who sparkle and shine as they take ownership of a story with great gusto. Audiences responded in large numbers and the piece blossomed with creativity and cunning performances.

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Katvoet with Tinarie van Wyk-Loots Picture: Nardus Engelbrecht

Unfortunately, at art festivals, some productions are too big to see at the first performance and yet, the programme is so hectic, there’s no other option. Everything about Katvoet excited me about the prospect of witnessing another performance at the KKNK, which I will do. It starts with the robust adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof by Nico Scheepers and a cast featuring Marius Weyers (Big Daddy) and Marion Holm (Big Mama) as the battling parents, Tinarie van Wyk-Loots as Maggie, Laudo Liebenberg (Boela), Albert Pretorius (Buffel) and Martelize Kolver (his wife Jollie).

Adapting and reimagining a classic is a tough ask, but here it is viewed from a new and younger perspective with less angst about the prescriptions, which offers different insights.

It was an exciting theatrical selection but that’s just some of what was on offer at a festival which started out celebrating books. It still does that while embracing the full spectrum of the arts wholeheartedly. It’s become one of our most important festivals not only because it is based in and attached to a university (although that helps) but also because of the spirited leadership of Saartjie Botha who is constantly pushing the envelope while ignoring the parameters.

That’s what the arts should be – a platform for all artists.

A Dream Team for Flagship Production at 25th Anniversary of KKNK

Koningin Lear with Antoinette Kellermann as Elizabeth Lear Picture Robert A Hamblin
Koningin Lear with Antoinette Kellermann as Elizabeth Lear. Picture: Robert A Hamblin

The upcoming Klein Karoo Arts Festival (KKNK) is celebrating its 25th anniversary from March 21 to 27 in Oudtshoorn. DIANE DE BEER speaks to director Marthinus Basson about one of their flagship productions Koningin Lear:

 

 

Director/designer Marthinus Basson and Belgian writer Tom Lanoye are a match made in theatre heaven. They’ve proved that with previous collaborations including Mamma Medea (translated by Antjie Krog) and Bloed en Rose (translated by Basson).

Combining the craft, cunning and creativity of these two to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Klein Karoo Arts Festival is genius.

This time Lanoye has reimagined Shakespeare’s King Lear with Krog (again) translating and Basson directing what seems like a dream cast. Koningin Lear stars Antoinette Kellermann as Elizabeth Lear who has reimagined her small inherited family business and built it into an international empire.

She is ageing with signs of dementia and announces that she wants to divide the business amongst her three sons, but each of them has to declare their love and loyalty to her. Her youngest and adored son refuses, and this unleashes a torrential family feud.

Many will recognise the bare bones of this tragic tale, but Lanoye being Lanoye, has tied this age-old and much revered play to issues most pressing of our time. It is described as an epic story that comments sharply on the business world where integrity and loyalty have disappeared, and greed has conquered everything and everyone in its wake.

The rest of the cast reads like a who’s who of Afrikaans theatre with Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Rolanda Marais, André Roothman, Neels van Jaarsveld, Wilhelm van der Walt, Edwin van der Walt and Matthew Stuurman, all on one stage, something to relish.

With all these tasty ingredients in one basket, it’s a feast that will be tough to resist for theatre lovers. And a fantastic gift for this 25th anniversary celebration.

It’s a tough one though, says Basson, who was involved with three productions at the recent Woordfees – of which the massive MI(SA) was yet another creative mountain scaled successfully.

And this is the closest he will get to the one Shakespeare play he vowed never to direct. “I saw the perfect production as a very young man in Munich and I promised I would never mess with that memory,” he says. “I saw a proper catharsis on stage.”

As he talks about the production, every detail is still seared into his memory – from the performances to the production. “To experience heartache like that made me realise why theatre is great. That’s what we should be investing in.”

But Lanoye and a reimagining of the Lear story (rather than the real deal) was impossible to resist -with its focus on family, all tied together by blood. A bloody family feud is at the centre with power, an ageing matriarch sharing her bounty with her sons and many modern-day ills rearing their heads, including avarice, anorexia, cunning, deviousness, anxiety and the list goes on. It’s soul food for both the players and those of us watching.

Marthinus Basson
Marthinus Basson

As often with festivals, time is a problem. “We have too little time to rehearse,” says the master of theatre who is always expected to create miracles – which he does. The play is also three hours long, not the ideal at a festival. Yet Basson junkies will know this is one not to miss. Like the Lear he saw that kept him spellbound, this can also be expected if things play out as they should.

In today’s world where economy dictates to the arts, even spectacular productions seldom travel further even with all these riches attached.

One of these is not only the Lanoye text but also the Krog translation. Those of us who witnessed Mamma Medea 17 years ago can remember the poetry of her text. “She’s naughty at times,” notes Basson (as she was with the previous text), but it’s a tough one because Afrikaans is cumbersome with rhythms, such a determining factor in Shakespeare’s language. Her translation though is resilient, something he admires.

Because she and Lanoye have worked together before, she understands his writing and he allows her a free hand to interpret. All this leads to a strong South African-slanted Koningin Lear, which might even add a secret soap element to this particular Shakespeare.

It is the world of BIG BUSINESS with TV screens dominating the room, skype rather than cell phones is the communicating tool and on the agenda are markets that might implode, rampant social media and fake news.

When the eldest son has to swear undying love, he mentions acquisitions like the Plet home, his horses, his Porsche Cayenne and a celebrated vintage wine, all he would relinquish for his mother. You can hardly go more South African than that.

But it is a hellish text to manage, especially for Kellermann, says Basson, who is delighted that she has all that down before they even start work. Yet his heart yearns for plays with 42 players rather than the seven they have, to make this one work.

None of which will detract from Koningin Lear with Basson at the helm. Even with the mass that he recently directed, he had to make do with the ad hoc rather than the main choir. “These were often people without work or very little work but they put their hearts into the singing,” he says. “It puts a slant on privilege. The joy in their performance was astounding and a lesson in what people are capable of doing.”

He speaks similarly of Die Gangsters, another play which had a season at the Woordfees. “It’s a special production because it’s in memory of the playwright Ben Dehaeck,” he says and even if it meant running between too many productions, he manages to heighten both the innovation and the performances in a play that has as much to say as it entertains.

When speaking to Basson, he usually refers to the current production as his last one. Fortunately for local theatre and audiences, he can’t help himself. Whether it is his own imagination that drives him, the opportunities he cannot resist, plays he cannot turn away from or performers he enjoys working with, he keeps coming back. And audiences applaud.

Like the King Lear that stole his heart because time stopped while the story was told, he does similar things when making theatre. It’s always in the detail – no matter how big or small. In the end it all comes together in a production that for Basson fans adds to the greatness of his oeuvre.

 

Women Capture their Stories with Needle and Thread

Bertha Rengae, Group coordinator of Group 3 of the women of the Mapula Embroidery Trust
Bertha Rengae, Group coordinator of Group 3 of the women of the Mapula Embroidery Trust

A fundraiser for a group of Rwandan embroiderers is being held at the end of the month in Pretoria following in the footsthe establishment of a unique embroidery and empowerment project in the Winterveld:

 

DIANE DE BEER

 

A remarkable story has emerged from one of South Africa’s most dire areas, the Winterveld, where a group of women were trained in the early ‘90s by members of the Soroptimist International Pretoria Club for an income-generating, empowerment project.

The Sisters of Mercy provided a classroom and an embroidery project for the women of Mapula which started initially with 14 women, evolving through the years and growing to include 150 women, guided and supported by experienced individuals.

In a unique storytelling fashion, with needle and thread, these women have been sharing their stories over the past 26 years. And it is often these personal remembrances capturing our past from a unique vantage point that has captured the imagination internationally. Over the years, the high levels of technical and visual artistry with social and historical commentary have resulted in recognised works of art.

Their ideas are generated from lived realities, local magazines, newspapers, internet and television. Artists in the project draw the images while others translate them into brightly embroidered wall hangings, cushion covers, place-mats and bags, all represented in Mapula Embroideries.

Women from the Mapula Embroidery Trust in the Winterveld
Women from the Mapula Embroidery Trust in the Winterveld

These have been exhibited widely, both in South Africa but also internationally, all over the USA and Europe. Mapula embroideries and artists feature in more than 12 art publications and they have won several awards.

Women in the Mapula Group won the FNB Vita Craft Now Gold award for example; an order for 52 items for the Oprah Winfrey Academy for Girls was executed; and many different art museums across the world feature their work and celebrate the Mapula women and they are included in many private collections.

A well-researched book Mapula: Embroidery and Empowerment in the Winterveld by Prof Brenda Schmahmann was published in 2006 by David Krut Publishing.

The project now consists of three groups: two groups are situated in the Winterveld, North West of Pretoria, and one in Hammanskraal. The production of the goods is managed by the embroiderers themselves and since 2016, the Mapula Embroidery Trust with NPO status was established.

One of the members, Pinky Resenga testifies that the project saved her from a life of drinking and living on the streets. “With the income I could extend my mother’s house. After helping her I hope to build my own four rooms for myself and my children.”

The income generated through the Mapula embroidery project has assisted women over the years to clothe, feed and educate their children. Today, 28 years later, the Mapula Embroidery Project with its strong foundations is well established.

Women from the Kibeho Embroidery project
Women from the Kibeho Embroidery project

A few years ago, after visiting the Mapula Project, Netty Butera, the wife of the Rwandan High Commissioner to SA (after visiting the Mapula Project), approached the Soroptimists who initiated Mapula to start a similar project in her country with the initial training of 12 women.

Again it was to add value and the possibility of a regular income to extremely vulnerable women in the south of Rwanda at a place called Kibeho, close to the Burundi border. It is regarded as a holy place because in 1981 it is believed the Virgin Mary appeared to some teenagers. It marked the rise of the remote Kibeho to a spiritual hub on the global arena. Many pilgrims visit annually and if the women instead of begging could generate an income from the sale of an embroidery project, it would improve their self-esteem and offer their children a different future.

Following much planning, three women, Rosina Maepa and Dorah Hlongwane from the Mapula Embroidery Project and Janetje van der Merwe from Soroptimist International Pretoria left for Rwanda with suitcases packed with embroidery cotton, fabric, a brand-new sewing machine, two steam irons, needles and scissors – all to get the project started in a new country.

Local contacts, liaisons as well as facilitators were arranged to keep the process flowing and in the past few years, another training trip for a further 19 women was included which brings the total number of women who are part of the project to 31. Marketing of the products is still a huge problem and something they hope to improve dramatically so that those involved benefit to the maximum.

Rwandan embroideries
Rwandan embroideries

With this as the focus, a fundraising afternoon of socialising and sharing will be held at the residence of the Rwandan High Commissioner in Pretoria on March 31. It will start with the best Rwandan coffee and tea, followed by an opportunity to buy some of the unique Holy Land Kibeho Embroideries, listen to an introduction of Rwanda and an illustrated talk on the empowerment of women in that area through the embroidery project.

A Rwandan dinner with South African wines will be served after the presentation giving those attending the chance to experience another African cuisine. Tickets for the event are R200 per person and bookings can be made at 083 447 7909/082 903 1178/073 564 8215.

South Africa is a country that makes it easy for individuals to reach out. Some wonder if their efforts make a difference, but when one witnesses a project like Mapula and how the lives of people are changed – even across borders – it shows how even a little assistance can go a long way.

 

 

Uit Die Bloute Hits All The Right Notes

DIANE DE BEER

Bloute In Paly Paul du Toit and Jenna Dunster
Paul du Toit and Jenna Dunster in Uit die Bloute

 

UIT DIE BLOUTE

DIRECTOR: Henriëtta Gryffenberg

CAST: Paul du Toit (actor), Jenna Dunster (actress), Leon Ecroignard (bass guitar), Jahn Beukes (percussion), Lizanne Barnard (keyboard), Pyjama Shark (acoustic and electric guitar)

TEXT: Adapted from two Eugène Marais stories

MUSIC: Lizanne Barnard

CHOREOGRAPHY: Ignatius van Heerden

PLACE: Atterbury Theatre, Pretoria

This latest production reminds those of us who saw the original show just why it is such a special production. It’s innovative, playful, imaginative, dramatic and as a bonus, has a sensational soundtrack.

It also has a warm heartbeat at its centre. Du Toit and Dunster are two young actors who might not have been the obvious choice and that especially makes it exciting. It’s about the unexpected which suits the piece.

With a text magnificently adapted from Marais’s much-loved Die Lied van die Reën and Salas Y Gomez, an unusual story of struggle for what is precious to you, this is  a performance that is delightful in its presentation of both the remarkable words and the addictive music.

Bloute with Paul du Toit and musos Lizanne Barnard and son
Paul du Toit and musos Lizanne Barnard and son Pyjama Shark in the background

The music/percussion sets the tone with its African slant which also bleeds into the percussive use of emotions from a knock at the door to a sudden movement exaggerated by clever use of a rhythm or a beat. This group of musicians is something special, starting with Barnard who has taken her compositions of 11 Marais poems and contemporised them with African and sounds and rhythms, so perfectly suited to the Marais words in both the poetry and the storytelling. She has also done three new compositions for Skoppensboer, Dieprivier and Eonone.

Bringing much of this to life is percussion genius Beukes with the help of the wacky Ecroignard, who adds to the depth and playfulness with the contemporary edge of the production pushed brilliantly by Barnard on keyboards and Shark on acoustic and electric guitar. They build a musical landscape that holds the production while adding detail while brightly colouring the edges. Then there are the songs beautifully interpreted and sung by Barnard with the depth of male voices introducing even more texture. I’m hoping for a CD.

Telling the stories, Du Toit and Dunster are energetic and enthusiastic as they embrace the performance gymnastics with gusto. It’s never easy when you have such a rich text to combine that with clever choreography, all of which has to unfold seamlessly to make it work.

But they do and it is the combo that turns this into compelling theatre with the two actors creating a comfortable rapport as they move between two quite different tales in both approach and dramatics – and they never lose sight of the text. There’s a wide-eyed deliciousness in Dunster’s performance while Du Toit goes full tilt, especially when in a persona more peculiar than his regular routines.

uit die bloute
The artists from Uit die Bloute

They get it right in a production which has put emphasis on the playfulness to balance the more serious tone as the second story unfolds.

Gryffenberg has pushed the performances and has been rewarded with a production that has everyone on and off stage engaged and entertained. It reminds one of the escapism offered by good theatre, in a way that doesn’t ignore quality and never opts for the lowest common denominator. It’s simply the best.

It’s the full package: starting with a good text, sublime storytelling and a cast of players, musical and dramatic, who can deliver and unwrap this gift they have been handed in spectacular fashion.

  • US Woordfees March 6 (12.30) and March 8 (8pm), 21, 22, 23, 24 March at KKNK, 15-19 April at Oppiewater Arts Festival

Hokkaido is an Island for all Seasons

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An other-worldly landscape

Many South Africans will be travelling to Japan as the host country of this year’s Rugby World Cup and the 2020 Olympics. Following a holiday in Japan in October last year, DIANE DE BEER was invited on a return trip to Hokkaido, the most northern main island. She loses her heart and gives her impressions:

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The spectacle of snow festivals

 

What I probably love most about travelling in Japan is that it is foreign and familiar at the same time.

It’s immediately clear that the Japanese have a different culture, they speak a different language and use a writing system that many foreigners can’t read and yet, there’s a familiarity that’s unmistakable and comfortable.

While you might think that you could lose your way in such a strange land, there’s much that you know and recognise, to keep you in a very happy place.

What should have had me worried when I was invited by JETRO (the Japan External Trade Organization, a non-profit parastatal under the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry of Japan) for a brief visit to their most northern main island, Hokkaido, in February, was the weather.

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Dressed for the weather

At the back of my mind I could hear someone saying when we were planning our holiday last October that February wasn’t a good time to go as it was the coldest month in that neck of the woods. And a further notice from the hosts about the climate in Asahikawa/Sapporo, the two cities we were visiting, should have been ample warning.

The average ranged at about -6.5 deg with the minimum touching -12. Suitable clothing was suggested as one of the reasons we were traveling all this way at this specific time was for the annual Japanese snow festivals celebrated all over Hokkaido but specifically in these two cities.

Snow hasn’t really been part of my vocabulary but the spectacle of a world clad in white, the texture like powder, the fact that snow isn’t wet until it melts, a cold that leaves you breathless, all of that is part of an other-wordly experience.

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The majesty of the snow festival in Sapporo

The snow festival itself in both cities is about (gigantic in some instances) snow and ice sculptures depicting scenes or characters from Star Wars, which seems to be a popular theme, or anything Disney and some of Japan’s favourite mascots like Hello Kitty.

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Hello Kitty with Jetro’s Slindokuhle Mbuyisa

The festivals ran from February 6 to 11 (it changes annually but not by much) and both cities attract well over a million people from the rest of the country as well as foreign visitors. The area offers fantastic skiing in close proximity to both cities, ice skating, sledding and snow rafting, as well as the wondrous winter canvas with a landscape completely covered in snow.

We had a few bus rides from one city to the next and watching what seems like a silent world go by is stunning. As a child of Africa, I certainly don’t want to live in that extreme weather – we were in Sapporo on the coldest day in history – but I can appreciate the spectacle.

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The riches of the meat and seafood in Hokkaido served at Otaru’s Canal Restaurant

Hokkaido is a fascinating island because, amongst other things, it seems to be the food basket of Japan. It has nearly one-fourth of Japan’s arable land and is a leader in the production of many agricultural products. Different coastal areas are also rich sources of seafood ranging from shrimp to salmon, sea urchin and scallops, sweet snow crab and tuna. The variety is awesome and reflected in the restaurants.

We had spectacular meals ranging from sushi/sashimi to a seafood barbeque; a traditional tasting menu and a unique sea-urchin shabu (hotpot) with the broth mixed with leftover rice the perfect comfort food; buffet breakfasts in hotels, an adventure all its own; the odd ramen and gyozo (dumplings) – and then I haven’t even mentioned the meat. How can one, with the abundance of seafood, unlike anywhere else in the world? Every meal had a scallop or two tucked in somewhere.

 

Hokkaido also boast a sizeable timber industry, hence their focus during a part of our visit on furniture factories. An entry into this world was slightly puzzling as they don’t export to Africa but I was intrigued by the work ethics and the employer/employee relationship. It also proved the familiar adage that the Japanese are constantly striving for perfection. There’s a reason for everything and its all about the final results.

One specific factory we were taken to for a specialised visit was Takumi Kohgei with the owner, Yoshihiko Kuwabara, sharing his particular philosophy, which he says is what Hokkaido is all about. Most of these factories and this one in particular are not big concerns and perhaps that is why the attention and care heaped on the workers is so impressive.

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The design of the Takumi Kohgei factory

From the design of this particular factory, which looks more like a high-tech home, to the humidity and temperature control on the factory floor – with some of the workers not even wearing the ubiquitous mask because the dust from the wood was immediately removed by huge extractor pipes, the whole concern is impressive with the end results, the furniture, quite unique.

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Having fun with timber

It is a clever combination of their past and a modern sensibility with possibly a nod to the ‘50s, and their interior accessories are extraordinary. Forty crafts people dedicate themselves to making detailed furniture from indigenous wood and the machines are used only as support.

Visiting Hokkaido in autumn/winter or spring/summer makes a huge difference. These would be completely different holidays – each with their specific attractions. Before I left on the trip, someone sent me a link to Sapporo and there were some amazing art spots to visit, but I realised when there, that these weren’t possible in winter. One was a fantastic sculpture park by artist Isamu Noguchi in Sopporo, as well as a cemetery by the amazing architect Ando Tadao which includes a pool of water and a pathway that leads up to a circular structure accessed via a tunnel. He is famous for his entrances to his buildings and this one with a circular structure with 15 000 lavender plants along the roof, certainly seems worth a return visit.

So are the hiking trails and the natural wonders of this particular island, which was hit by a devastating earthquake only last year. They are desperate to revive their tourism but when you see what they have to offer, it’s not a tough ask.

We had an onsen (hot spring) in our Asahikawa hotel and each night it was an astonishing way to recover all the energy the weather had tapped during the day. The island is especially famous for its range of outdoor onsens, which would also deliver on the complete experience of the Japanese ritual so popular amongst its people.

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Jetro’s Slindokuhle Mbuyisa and media personality Lalla Hirayama having fun in the snow-drenched Hokkaido

From participating in meals at the local ramen shop to sharing an onsen, it’s a way to get to know the Japanese people, which in itself is special. In today’s fast life and daily grind, especially in Japan where they struggle with an overdeveloped work ethic, mixing with the people when they find time to relax is your best chance for social interaction.

Having been to the country twice in the past five months, what has become clear is that you need that first trip to discover what you want to do and see in this complex yet completely fascinating country. So if you are off on your first trip, do as much preparation as possible. Find out as much as you can about everything you want to do before you go. It will all contribute to an incredible journey.

* Diane de Beer was invited by JETRO, (the Japan External Trade Organization, a non-profit parastatal under the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry of Japan), for a brief spell at the beginning of February to their northernmost main island Hokkaido.