OUDTSHOORN: Theatre was red hot at the 20th anniversary of the Klein Karoo National Arts Festival (KKNK) held in Oudtshoorn last week. That’s a glorious thing in a time when the state of theatre is often a national debating point.
Even more encouraging was that it wasn’t only the quality of the programme and the productions, but also the attendance. Most of the shows were packed and to see classical plays like Marthinus Basson’s Macbeth, Slapeloos (which also travels to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown in July) and Wie’s Bang vir Virginia Woolf? (a Saartjie Botha translation of the Edward Albee classic) draw full halls at nine in the morning was a delight.
In tandem with our young democracy, the festival also celebrated 20 years and if the quality and diversity of the programme are an indication, there’s been a healthy leap as they stand on the brink of maturity.
Telling stories that grabbed you by the throat dominated this year’s original plays and what made it more special was that in many instances these were of a personal nature. Experiencing Emo Adams painting pictures about a little boy growing up in Mitchells Plain has much more impact than cold headlines. “It was weird to see men hitting children with sjamboks,” he says, telling about the first time he became aware of the situation in his country. “My parents didn’t tell us about racism. They thought if we didn’t know, it would keep us safe.”
He was a young performer with dreams and people like David Kramer and the late Taliep Petersen helped him “survive”.
“Those of us who get out are survivors,” he reminds us.
And the situation is even worse today with the frightening rise of gangsters and drugs. But he hopes, if some nine-year-old child sees him on TV, they will know that they can make it. “Mommy, I want to do the same as that uncle,” echoes in his mind.
Finding Emo, the title of his show, cuts deep but with comical flair. We need to hear all the stories to be reminded that people are living there – and some in much worse condition than others.
That’s perhaps why playwright Rachelle Greef (The Sewing Machine) felt compelled to write a play after the gruesome rape and killing of Anene Booysen in February last year. With Hennie van Greunen as director and a shimmering cast, it’s one of those stories that scratches around under the skin of the community (and it could be one of many), not taking the sensational route but trying to find solutions to these horrific incidents that seem to happen too often in this country.
Like Lara Foot’s Tshepang and more recently Phillip Dakotla’s Skierlik, Rondomskrik makes your head spin as you grapple with the circumstances of ordinary people who simply seem to slip out of society’s mainstream, forgotten, until their screams resonate in the consciousness, usually too late.
With this kind of dissection, we’re given a chance to reflect and to remember. “And then I grew angry. Because we play blind, and remain silent,” says Greeff in her writer’s note. But she turns her anger around powerfully. She tells the story of people who are still suffering, where children don’t have a voice and more often than not, nowhere to turn.
Van Greunen’s plays usually travel and this one should be seen by large numbers of people, not only for brilliant performances from the cast (Shaleen Surtie-Richards, Lee-Ann van Rooi, Crystal-Donna Roberts and Richard September) and effective direction, but because it has given a forgotten community a voice. If you can catch it as it plays at different festivals or in cities around the country (and you understand the language), know that it shifts minds and improves the understanding of the society we live in. It begs to be translated so that it can be heard far and wide.
Together Finding Emo and Rondomskrik represent a community that has often complained about being marginalised, which makes it even more important that their voices should soar – as they did in Oudtshoorn.
Playwright/director Christiaan Olwagen is one of the most illuminating talents to emerge in the past few years. His work is innovative, bounces with youthful maturity and he seems to manage to produce a carnival of plays with dexterity.
He wrote and/or directed: Virginia Woolf (which has to have a life after the festival) with the long-awaited pairing of Sandra Prinsloo and Marius Weyers; Wie Drink Wat?; the reworked Trompie is net Uitgepaas; the innovative Waterpas and Die Lelike Eend; the frothy Feeskatte; as well as the winning ATKV young adult play Sneeuwitjie en die Sewe Zombies; and finally the debut of his magnus opus at this particular festival, Dogma, a search and struggle to find and claim his own identity in a home that cherished both dogma and Dylan. The output is staggering and much of it well received.
Dogma bristles as it engages the audience with word and performance and he challenges them on a personal and universal level.
With a title that throws down the gauntlet and religion at the core of this personal crusade, he makes courageous casting and performance choices. He plays with the best using musical genius Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, movement whiz Ina Wichterich and a text that closes with a sentence so haunting, it lingers for days.
And then there’s the coming together of Jaco Bouwer, a director whose visual dexterity dictates his work, and wordsmith supreme Willem Anker with Samsa-Masjien, a play that in particular juggles with words as the writer engages with Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Their knock-out production Skrapnel a few years back foreshadowed their re-engagement and the pairing is combustive.
It is overwhelming from a staging, performance and meaning perspective, but in a strange way accessible, because it presents so many entry points. The most obvious is perhaps the ageing process, the loss of dignity for those who are aware and those who are not, the disintegration of family ties, the understanding that we are all at some stage going to enter this landscape where people become invisible; of not finding the words, or shouting those that are irrelevant.
But then you are coerced to move to more metaphorical and intellectual ground as you battle with your own demons to rise above or disintegrate into a world that no one wants to claim or even recognise.
It is the way Anker relates the story and Bouwer’s visual interpretation that slide so spectacularly, one into the other, that makes this such a rewarding and robust experience.
The cast, led by Antoinette Kellerman and Gerben Kamper, both actors who relish being challenged, take that leap the play warrants and make it fly. Pierre-Henri Wicomb is part of the mix with his explosive sound.
As radical, trail-blazing theatre, it begs to be seen. This extravagant and extraordinary production is an onslaught on the senses as it invades and expands the mind.
That’s just to mention a few at the end of a festival, which also presented second runs of great productions like Wie’s Bang vir Virginia Woolf? with buxom performances by Prinsloo and Weyers, Marthinus Basson’s inspired Macbeth, Slapeloos, the burgeoning talent of the kids discovered along Route 62 mentored by Pedro Kruger and Hennie van Greunen in #checkityt@route62#2, Laurinda Hofmeyr’s poetic music and homage with the Odeion Quartet and Zanne Stapelberg paying tribute to contemporary South African classical composers.
The arts were the winners as theatre pulled in the audiences with stories representative of a colourful nation exploring its individual voices, all fighting to be heard.
That’s how we get to understand and empathise with one another.
It was a magnificent, celebratory Klein Karoo National Arts Festival clambering out of its childhood as it embraces its artists and the way they enrich our world.