After two days of staggering from mediocre to dismally boring, I finally hit paydirt at the National Arts Festival.
It turns out that what I should have done was head for the plays with the longest names.
A Tale of Horribleness is a sweet production aimed at children (the young and the old kind) created by the aptly named Space Behind the Couch.
With this work they convey that sense of magic you had as a kid, playing behind the couch – the way you used your imagi-nation to create a magical world with your toys and the sheet from your bed.
In the hour-long play, the next- to-youngest child has to save his little brother from the dreaded Aichump while avoid-ing the strange Mimble girl next door.
The story is told by three actors who play various characters and manipulate puppets and, of course, mine the Tove Jansen Moomin books for names and references.
They use accents and costumes to create various characters and there are even opening credits, hand-drawn and projected onto the backdrop, as well as original music.
It’s a tight little production that keeps up the pace and doesn’t lag, draws on puppetry and even makes some jokes only the adults catch.
Above all, they concentrate on telling the story as it is experienced by the children around whom the story revolves.
Still, even though the story is important it is the overriding feeling that this is one big adventure that picks you up and carries you away to a world where screecher birds are the spies for a menacing horrible-ness next door.
Kitchen Fables in a Cookie Jar is as much of an adventure, but on a micro scale.
It’s a sophisticated piece of theatre-work for kids, set in a kitchen, showing us the dreams of one little girl.
One strange night she dreams that an odd cook is making cookies in her kitchen and utensils and foodstuff come alive.
Created by Jori Snell of Baba Yaga Theatre, the short play encourages children to engage with the abstract.
She plays all the characters and explains right up front to the little ones not to be scared by the dark, and to remember that it is her playing the characters.
She clambers over and around the kitchen table and magically incorporates lights into her costume to create a sense of wonder.
Assitej– a member-driven global association of theatres for children and young people – have set themselves up in one venue at Grahamstown this year, creating a space for children to play and create before engaging with theatre pieces aimed specifically at them.
This is quite separate to the children’s festival, which is more about creating a safe space for children to be taken care of while their parents catch up on adult theatre.
Assitej’s mission is to encourage the creation of good theatre for children and youth, and Kitchen Fables in a Cookie Jar fits right in with that idea.
The third play I saw was decidedly not for children, as the name suggests – The Epicene Butcher and Other Tales for Consenting Adults.
Jemma Khan draws on the conventions of kamishibai to tell five short stories. The Japanese theatrical format uses picture boards, moved around in a box by the storyteller, to illustrate the story being narrated.
Usually it is done by someone on a bicycle, travelling around the neighbourhood with the beautiful box of stories on the back of the bicycle.
In their culture the old man handing out sweets on the street corner means something completely different.
In between stories her assistant, Chalk Girl, gave us silent hints as to what to expect.
Khan is an expressive storyteller – she judges her timing well and focuses her energy in a very concentrated manner.
The set was cluttered with Japanese paraphernalia to create a kooky, yet comforting atmosphere. Comforting, that is, if you are familiar with the Japanese cultural impedimenta that has made it across the seven seas. If you don’t know what “hentai” ( porn animation) is, though, some of the drawings and one of the stories, especially, will freak you out.
But the play is aptly named, well illustrated and great fun.