As a South African performing artist my first impression of the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year is how big it all feels. I think I was at the very first festival in 1974 and have returned many times over the last 39 years. I’m told that next year is the big ’40’ for the NAF. So over the last 39 years (Gosh, I’m getting old!) I have watched the festival change and grow. Personally, I think that it has lost some of its charm but maybe it is me that is jaded. Somehow, the adventure and the cosy pubs were artists all gathered and exchanged ideas around the fireplace is no longer there. There are over 400 productions in town and it is impossible to see them all. I have managed a max of three or 4 per day in between our own show the 39 STEPS.
On the first day I managed to see Mbongeni Ngema’s new solo show, THE ZULU, and later that day I got to see SUNDAY MORNING a play by Nick Warren with the fabulous James Cunningham. Both were solo shows so comparisons were easily drawn. THE ZULU despite the stature of Mbongeni Ngema was nothing more than a history lesson. It could’ve been so much more. I had high hopes of getting into the inner psyche of a Zulu warrior, understanding what makes him so passionate about his culture and history, but what I got was a superficial narrative. I never saw the people or the characters I simply heard about them in the 3rd person. Whilst Mbongeni has always been a superb performer, one of the few that really moved me in the WOZA ALBERT days, it would seem he is not quite stage-fit yet as it would seem he dried frequently. With some prudent editing and more insight into the characters and their feelings and maybe stronger direction this piece could become something very special.There is no doubt, that Mr Ngema knows his culture and history very well. Now he just has to find a more human, dramatic and entertaining way to tell it.
SUNDAY MORNING on the other hand saw a stage-fit actor delivering a superbly written piece in a moving, theatrical and entertaining way. I enjoyed every moment of this play which given the festival technical limitations still managed to achieve wonderful moments. In the capable hands of James Cunningham this piece flows effortlessly. Great to see Nick Warren at it again! Cant wait to see the other works. This was an intelligent, heartwarming piece! Well done to all.
On day two I managed to see the Johannesburg Youth Ballet’s HANSEL & GRETEL. It was enjoyable and well put together with some impressive music by Nic Sakelarides and AV’s that made up most of the scenic effects. Afterwards I met an old couple who were really disappointed in the ballet. They were ‘expecting a professional piece’! I asked them if they read the programme as it clearly stated that this was the Johannesburg Youth Ballet. Their retort was quite uncharitable. “The festival is bringing the recession right to our doorstep!” I’m all for the youth getting these kinds of opportunities. Well done the festival organisers.
Next on the agenda was THE THREE LITTLE PIGS, an enchanting allegorical style piece using the story of the 3 pigs and the big bad wolf to give us insight into the machinations of the intelligence, security and corrupt business community. the three actors were superb. Their accents and body language was spot on. An entertaining and sometimes frightening piece.
So on to day 3 with much trepidation. What to do, what to see? Too much to get to! What is very clear is that the Arts in all their forms are alive and abundant despite the perceived lack of financial support nationally. I’m most concerned with the lack of support for the dance community. Funding is not forthcoming and the companies are closing. It would seem that theatre as it currently survives is economically more sustainable as is music. The manpower required seems smaller. But dance requires big numbers. Let’s hope our funders and audiences support our dance companies so that at least some survive.