PICTURES: Hans van der Veen
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.
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.
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.
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.
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