It was the 10th celebration of the Suidooster Festival, but it was also a time to pay homage to its late chairman, Professor Jakes Gerwel, who wrote the foreword for the festival programme even though he died before he could witness any of the performances.
He did, however, announce that this anniversary festival would stage the first Athol Fugard play in Afrikaans, the adaptation of an Andre P Brink novel, Bidsprinkaan, Adam Small’s Orange Earth written in 1984, an adaptation of Steve Hofmeyr’s Vier Briewe vir Jan Ellis, and X en Y, a teen drama written by new kid on the block Christiaan Olwagen and directed by Marthinus Basson, who marks 40 glowing years in the industry this year.
That was just the new crop, with old favourites such as Mooi Maria and Naaimasjien still packing in the crowds.
Storytelling is one of the healthiest ways of healing, and leading the new crop was Brink’s Bidsprinkaan, vividly adapted by Saartjie Botha with colourful direction by Janice Honeyman.
It’s the perfect storm, with the script, direction and cast all hitting the mark – that and Brink’s colourful lead character Kupido Kakkerlak, the Khoi preacher who swops his people’s faith for that of his new masters with disastrous results as his loyalty and beliefs are discarded on a whim.
Honeyman is in her element when telling stories that balance a childlike narrative underpinned by a profound message, and Botha skilfully used the poetic lyricism of Brink’s novel, adding richness to the experience.
Elton Landrew playfully and imaginatively breathes life into Kupido, and once the opening night nerves subside, his will be an even more extraordinary performance with a robust supporting cast. It’s one to catch at the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre during the Woordfees to be held in Stellenbosch at the beginning of next month.
Dealing in similar themes, Small’s Orange Earth homes in on the disastrous debilitating effects of apartheid on the coloured people.
We live in a time when distance brings perspective and new generations are exposed to the harsh realities of our appalling past, but rather than allow the story to breathe, it is presented with so much fuss and detail that the story and the characters are diminished.
Old stories have to be told in a fresh way, yet not with the direction and the set getting in the way rather than enhancing and enabling the storytelling.
Similar problems crept in with Vier Briewe, which already has a disadvantage with an actor who is simply too young to play the part of Jan Ellis.
Director Lizz Meiring did a fine job with Christo Davids, but before the audience can come to grips with the story, they have to make a leap of such magnitude that it’s a tough one to conquer.
It’s a beautiful story, but it could have been more simply told both from the script and the director’s point of view. And sound effects and voiceovers have to be seamless or they become distracting. The staging could also benefit from a cleaner and simpler stance.
Script rather than staging was the problem in Die Laaste Karretjiegraf, Fugard’s first Afrikaans play, which he wrote to honour a request by his Afrikaans mother.
It is the story of the karretjiemense of the Karoo, and because Fugard sourced all the information from Riana Steyn, who gave him free access to her 13 years of research and fieldwork, he introduces a white woman who steps in as narrator rather than allowing these nomadic folk to tell their own harrowing story. (See review by Theresa Smith).
While all these plays look at particular events in the past, Basson and his young crew turned to today’s generation in a play titled X en Y.
This is the second time in recent years that Basson has taken a young cast and pushed them to speak their minds – in their way and in a language they’re familiar with.
The play is reminiscent of Tree of Life in its approach to its subject, and perhaps Philip Larkin’s poem This Be The Verse (They f**k you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do. They fill you with the faults they had. And add some extra just for you), which is quoted in the play, best describes the intent.
It was a once-off performance at this festival, but will travel further. It needs some cunning culling to give stronger structure to the text and to add punch to the performances of an exciting young cast led by four adult actors who face off with the children as parents.
It’s exhilarating to see how different festivals seem to grab hold of specific themes and how certain sentiments prevail at specific times.
It is also encouraging to see playwrights young and old grappling with the stories of groups of neglected people, those affected by the time and the place they were born, nothing more.
It is the way the stories are told, given shape and structure, which allows audiences to access their own perceptions and helps them to view the world differently.
That’s the power of theatre and storytelling, especially in this country, where so many have yet to be given a voice.