BY BILLY SUTER
ALL roads lead to Grahamstown this week as thousands of lovers of the arts get ready to see the city draped in red, white and blue for this year’s National Arts Festival, which runs from June 29 to July 9.
Now in its 43rd year, the event billed as Africa’s biggest and boldest celebration of the arts, will feature more than 700 shows – everything from theatre, dance, music, visual and performance arts and film, to illusion, cabaret and more.
This year’s comedy is particularly strong, with the biggest names in South African comedy performing alongside visiting talents such as UK comedians Stephen K Amos and Louise Reay.
“We are ready! Put down what you are doing and come to the National Arts Festival,” says festival chief executive officer Tony Lankester. “In times like these the need to reflect, revitalise, engage and reimagine is critical. It will all unfold at the festival this year.”
Last year, an audience survey showed that 99% of festivalgoers would recommend the experience to others.
“So take it from them, not me – it’s 11 days of amazing,” says Lankester.
Arts and Living Cultures, eThekwini Municipality, is supporting 12 Durban theatre groups, enabling them to attend and perform at this year’s festival.
This year the over-all focus of the festival is “Creative Disruption”, marking the first time in its 43-year history that the festival has put out a call for proposals with a theme.
The eThekwini Municipality support is enabling 120 theatre practitioners s from 12 different productions, across various genres, to have a presence on the Fringe of this year’s festival.
The productions the city is supporting include Trafficked (Trulife Productions), a show combining physical theatre, poetry and media projections to tell the story of a girl tricked into a human trafficking syndicate; and Game Over (Umvini Performing Art Project),which looks at love.
Then there are Us Against Them (Aphiwe Namba), a politically driven protest piece; The Chameleon (Magenta Pro), which looks at the quest for peace; Phumlani Mtiti Trio (Eco-Art), a contemporary instrumental trio fusing indigenous, western classical and SA jazz cultures; and Daffi Falls (Umsindo Theatre Projects), about the life and times of Muammar Gaddafi, as told by a journalist obsessed.
Also headed for Grahamstown are Refugees (Wushini Arts and Heritage), centred on displaced people in a refugee camp; Kubili (Musa Hlatswayo/Mhayise Productions), a double bill of dance; and Ants Job (Dikianga Arts), looking at the dishonourable state of living for Somali women.
Completing the list are Inyathuko (Mnqobi LM Arts Co), a complicated love story; Women in Tears (Edgy Drama Mix Productions) which reflects on the killing of mine workers by police inspired by the Marikana Massacre; and Nomalizo,The Brave (Madanisa Creative Productions), a love story written and directed by Bonginkosi Shangase.
“We are always delighted in being able to help facilitate taking productions to the National Arts Festival. It is important for the city to have a presence at one of the country’s foremost arts festivals and to allow our theatre makers to experience a national platform – especially emerging theatre voices to be able to add their story to the national dialogue,” says Themba Mchunu, manager of the municipality’s Arts and Living Cultures division.
Earlier in the year, the city put out a public call to groups and individuals who have already registered and have been approved to perform on the fringe at Grahamstown.
There were no criteria restricting the genre of productions to be supported: be it dance, musical theatre, drama, comedy or physical theatre. Selected productions received city support towards their transport, accommodation and marketing costs.
Carrying Durban’s flag at the NAF will also be Neil Coppen, whose new piece, Newfoundland (Buiteland) is on the main programme. The latest offering by Durban’s multiple award winning theatre maker, Newfoundland looks at the relationship between an Afrikaans anaesthetist based in Pietermaritzburg, and a Zulu-speaking choreographer with a calling to become a sangoma.
Durban music guru and practising labour lawyer Richard Haslop has four interesting, music-themed talks which look at music through his immense knowledge and quirky eyes.
Also on the programme are Durban’sGuy Buttery, and singer Noma Khumalo from Pietermaritzburg.
Making people laugh will by Lisa Bobbert and Aaron McIlroy with their Comedy Masterclass and Marriage for Dummies, and Ben Voss and John van de Ruit with their Mamba Republic. Rajesh Gopie’s classic, Out of Bounds, has been re-imagined as a two-hander for the festival.
Jazz will be celebrated with a programme of South African greats – including Judith Sephuma, Afrika Mkhize and Zenzi Makeba Lee, Kyle Shephard, and Benjamin Jephta –collaborating with international legends such as Andy Narell (US) and the James Morrison Quartet (Australia) for the 20th anniversary edition of the Standard Bank Jazz Festival.
Families are sure to be happily entertained with a programme of fun that includes children: Festival favourites include Rat Race, James and the Giant Peach and Granny Susan Incredible.
After successful runs in Cape Town and Johannesburg, Grahamstown’s production of The Gruffalo is lined up to run for the full 11 days of the festival.
Free performances of When Lion Had Wings and other child-friendly activities are events to look forward to. Parents can enrol their children (ages four to 13) into the Children’s Arts Festival, hosted by St Andrew’s Prep school.
Think!Fest, a series of lectures, workshops and seminars, will include a spotlight on children to mark the 100th anniversary of Child Welfare in Grahamstown.
The daily programme draws in a mix of high emotion and cerebral ruminations with speakers and audiences unpacking topical issues such as fake news (with Verashni Pillay), climate change, the “lost art of listening”, land acquisition and redistribution, as well as focus on collaboration and growing the arts industry.
In a jam-packed programme, there’s something to meet every interest, including the launch of the latest Short, Sharp Stories collection, Trade Secrets.
Dr Pemmy Majodina, the Eastern Cape MEC for Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture, says of the National Arts Festival: “It is an event we guard and value. It has a role beyond what happens on its stages.
“It is a cornerstone of our province’s economy, contributing R 377million annually to our GDP. That translates into jobs, tourist spend, visitors buying the work of our crafters … a myriad activities that help our people enhance their lives. It is an example of how the arts can play a meaningful role in the reconstruction of our economy and country.”
Research commissioned by the National Arts Festival and South African Cultural Observatory revealed that the global attendance (the number of times performances and exhibitions were seen) at the 2016 National Arts Festival was 225 634 – and that the average number of shows seen by a visitor was 10 (over and above free performances). Visitors stayed at the festival for an average of six days.
The National Arts Festival’s programme is online and available for booking on the site www.nationalartsfestival.co.za
The National Arts Festival is grateful to: the Department of Arts and Culture, Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture and the Office of the Premier, and Standard Bank of South Africa. Media partners include M-Net and City Press.