BILLY SUTER offers a wrap of the 25th Hilton Arts Festival at Hilton College – where, during an emotionally draining experience, he discovered the best stage play he has seen this year.
NOTWITHSTANDING weather that hurled all four seasons – and a cyclone warning – into one weekend, the 25th Hilton Arts Festival, held from Friday to Sunday (September 15 to 17) at Hilton College, emerged as a great success.
Kudos to the event’s director since inception, Sue Clarence, and her team, for a superb, well-run festival that offered a huge variety in venues and outdoor areas that covered a larger portion than usual of the sprawling, spring-kissed grounds of the historic boys’ school.
Once again the festival proved to be the year’s highlight on the KwaZulu-Natal arts and culture calendar, offering everything from theatre and art aplenty, to varied music, comedy, lectures and crafts.
I drove up from Durban in thick mist on Friday evening to first catch a performance of The Devil and Billy Markham, performed by James Cairns, of El Blanco: Tales of the Mariachi fame, a highlight of an earlier Hilton Arts Festival.
Cairns, directed by Jenine Collocott, was a constant delight, morphing from tough Billy to effeminate Satan, and assorted other characters, to tell a mesmerising tale about a constant dice with the Devil. How does he remember all those words!
Next up for me on Friday night was the audacious musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which opened exactly a year to the day after its debut at Cape Town’s Café 69. It went on to clinch Fleur du Cap Awards for stars Paul du Toit, in the name role, and Genna Galloway, as his burdened roadie.
Many near me in the ample audience seemed a little shell-shocked at times… this is no Sound of Music… but I found it a bold and refreshing take on the cult film from years ago, a movie which saw only two other people in the cinema when I went to review it back then.
A sometimes bitingly amusing musical with a wild mix of rock, punk and ballads, it tells the off-the-wall story of Hedwig, who performs punk-rock songs after a botched sex-change, being dumped by his husband and exploited by a rock hero who stole his heart and his songs.
The stage production, unfolding in a very tight stage space, was certainly enjoyable, with engaging performances, but I found early references by the characters to Hilton and Durban very odd, and the songs are largely forgettable. I have to say I expected a little more.
My find of the festival came at 10am on Saturday with The Inconvenience of Wings, far and away the best thing I have seen on stage this year. Emotionally draining – I was a wreck; all snot-en-trane – it is a work for which Lara Foot rightly scooped the Fleur du Cap Award for best director, while leads Andrew Buckland and Jennifer Steyn, both sensationally good, were also deservedly rewarded with Fleur du Caps.
Set amid memories and dreams, it tackles dysfunction, friendship, love, addiction and angels as it examines a husband and wife, and their children, devastated by her strong and violent reactions to bipolar disorder. Masterfully acted and directed, it was hard to watch at times, but made for absolutely brilliant theatre!
Another festival standout, and coincidentally also directed by the great Lara Foot, was Karoo Moose, a deceptively sweet and charming tale that becomes increasingly dark and powerful. It imaginatively spins a tale of pain, redemption and, ultimately hope, around the sighting of a moose on the loose in the Karoo. Very cleverly conceived and beautifully acted.
Another production that charmed me no end was Making Mandela, winner of a 2016 Naledi Award for Best Children’s Production, although it is a deft and compelling show that holds enormous appeal for all age groups.
With a wonderful lightness of touch, some extraordinary masks, and fun, energetic performances by a cast who play numerous characters, we learn of the childhood, teens and early adulthood of Nelson Mandela, told though episodic moments, a quirky soundtrack choice, and great acting. I loved it.
The festival weekend saw weather that began with mist and drizzle on Friday, scorching heat and warm winds on Saturday, major winds spurred by a Port Edward cyclone on Saturday night, and chill and drizzle on Sunday.
The festival started with a successful Jongosi youth day on Friday – with a bespoke range of youth-appropriate events, shows and exhibitions for the first time playing to 100% capacity.
Family-friendly fare was high on the agenda, with the festival’s affiliation with youth theatre experts, Assitej (International Association of Theatre for Children and Young People), whic
h offered a range of productions, workshop and a free children’s fantasy play-area: The Power of Play. The intention is to increase the involvement of Assitej next year to become an integral part of the Jongosi youth day as well.
There was a range of carefully curated range of art exhibitions this year, among them portraits of festival participants by photographer Harry Lock, entitled Out of Character; A Life Less Ordinary, featuring images of Nelson Mandela, by Matthew Willman; and Africa Media Online which established a strong presence this year, hosting both the World Press Photo Exhibition 2017 and nine presentations by some of South Africa’s foremost documentary photographers and curators of significant archives, under the banner of DocuFest Africa.
“We are delighted that we had such a successful festival again, especially as we were celebrating our 25th year of existence. I wish to extend a heartfelt thank you to the entire creative, management and technical team for their dedication, good humour and hard work; and secondly to our sponsors and partners who made the festival possible,” says Clarence
“We are delighted that the youth component of the festival was so well received – having 100% attendance at Jongosi is hugely affirming. We prioritise the need to grow the youth component of the festival and have great ideas to extend this vision next year, and have thoughts around extending the music programme for next year too.
“Among the highlights for me this year were a range of curated exhibitions, and our relationship with the Baxter Theatre in Cape Town.
“The Baxter Theatre had a strong presence this year with two major productions directed by Lara Foot – Karoo Moose and The Inconvenience of Wings, both of which are multi-award-winning productions and have just returned triumphant from the Edinburgh Festival.
“We are hoping to duplicate this next year and have two exciting productions in mind.
“Also new was the Bistro restaurant experience which was hosted by Jackie Cameron. It offered people an alternative dining opportunity in an atmosphere more conducive to conversation and quiet than the more boisterous main tent. And the excellent support for the range of lectures and workshops on offer was most pleasing.”
Detailed stats and numbers are not yet available – but due to the overall good weather the numbers of day trippers increased from last year, adds Clarence.
“The attendance for Saturday showed a 48% improvement compared to last year (calculated by numbers of cars through the gate) and ticket sales overall look very healthy.”
Hilton Arts Festival 2018 will be held from September 14 to 16.