IT’S BEEN a tough year for the arts, but Aardklop (the national arts festival at Potchefstroom) is celebrating with very strong productions for the 2014 festival running from October 7 to 11.

Theatre is one of the festival’s strongest suits and this year it gets the ball rolling with Belgian writer Tom Lanoye’s play, Bloed en Rose: Die Lied van Jeanne en Gilles. Translated and directed by Marthinus Basson, it is a historical drama about Joan of Arc and Baron Gilles de Rais and plays with the premise that if the state and the Church are given full power, why not an individual?

Basson is a director who likes tackling tough and challenging work. He always reflects on modern society, but gets there in a way that might not seem obvious, which adds to the intrigue of his work. His casts are also part of the puzzle and as always he has gathered a group of actors who will blow your socks off, from Nicola Hanekom, who for the past few years has been behind the scenes, writing and directing, rather than under the spotlight in such a huge production, to Andre Roothman, Anna-Mart van der Merwe, Antoinette Kellerman, Dawid Minnaar, Wessel Pretorius and Stian Bam.

He also directs an old favourite, Yasmina Reza’s Art, but with a trio of young actors who will encourage a younger generation to take charge of the debate, “what is art?” This time, (director) Christiaan Olwagen will be on stage with two acting buddies, Wessel Pretorius and Wilhelm van der Walt. As they discuss the boundaries of friendship and the way art pleases, disturbs and challenges certain perceptions, it will be fascinating to see what Basson does with his three young charges, and how it plays into this particular work.

One of these actors, stepping into his directorial shoes, tackles another classic, Chekov’s Seagull, translated into Afrikaans as Die Seemeeu and starring, like his version of Wie’s Bang vir Virginia Woolf?, Sandra Prinsloo and Marius Weyers. This is the second time round with this team, with the brilliant Saartjie Botha again translating and adapting the text. Also contributing to the cast is Alyzzander Fourie, who hasn’t been on stage for some time, and Rolanda Marais, who made her stage return earlier this year in Olwagen’s Dogma, which will also be playing at Aardklop. His approach in Virginia was innovative, so one wonders how he will handle Chekov.

Talking about returns to stage, Henrietta Gryffenberg slips back in a Schalk Schoombie text titled Gepiekel, which takes a comical look at the predictions of a prophet who promised to rise from the dead within 100 days of taking his last breath. Sharing the stage with Marie Pentz, Neels van Jaarsveld, Alwyn van der Merwe and Altus Theart and directed by Henry Mylne, it should be huge fun to discover who was swindling who and why.

Jaco Bouwer is a name to make a note of at any festival and here he comes up with a comic opera set in a post office in a small Karoo town, titled – not unexpectedly – Poskantoor. It stars Jannie Moolman, Magdalene Minnaar, Elizabeth Frandsen, Lynnelle Kened and Bongani Kubheka, with text by Tertius Kapp and music by Braam du Toit. The story is a blast with chinks in the armour, class and race battles clashing into one another, gondoliers and pseudo masochism all part of the madcap affair. With Bouwer, Kapp and Du Toit in the pound seats, we’ll probably be swinging from the chandeliers.

Bouwer also directed the extraordinary Na-aap, which was supposed to debut at last year’s festival. Unfortunately, actor De Klerk Oelofse hurt his ankle and the play had to withdraw after one performance. Following a meagre two performances at this year’s Woordfees, they had the good sense to allow this production to finally find its way centre stage. It’s a reinterpretation of Report to the Academy with Bouwer outplaying himself on multimedia, and Oelofse staking his claim as an actor to watch out for. Get tickets now, it’s a riveting production.

Dogma is another winner, with director Christiaan Olwagen telling his own story in a way that’s fresh and appeals to audiences young and old. He has a sublime cast from Albert Pretorius to Rolanda Marais, Eric Holm, Tinarie van Wyk Loots and Roelof Storm.

Another breker who returns to the mould is Lionel Newton in a Paul Slabolepszy classic, The Return of Elvis du Pisanie. This is a match made in heaven, with Newton earlier this year performing in the resurrection of Pale Natives. But also, like Slabolepszy, he speaks in a way that makes a particular language disappear while the South African flavour permeates from start to finish. Eddie grows up in Modderfontein and is an Elvis Presley fanatic. He gets married, has kids and finds a job selling underfloor heating. But he decides his life is worthless until he turns on the radio and hears an Elvis classic.

There’s also the traumatic story of a young girl who is raped and murdered in Rondomskrik starring Shaleen Surtie-Richards, which made its debut earlier this year in Oudtshoorn and is now travelling the country. It’s an extraordinary theatrical experience with a story that grabs at the gut, a cast that soars as they tell this story that needs to be part of the public discourse and a production that breaks hearts as much as the experience is a rewarding one.

Bidsprinkaan, another Saartjie Botha adaptation, this time of the Andre P Brink award-winning novel, is finally travelling to Gauteng following a few short seasons at festivals and in the Cape. It is directed by Janice Honeyman and stars Elton Landrew in an inspired performance as Kupido Kakkerlak, who says his character was formed through the stories his mother told. He was a liar, a drinker, a lover and a fighter until he discovered God and he turned to preaching. His life as the first Khoi missionary is an important one and a history lesson of note.

It’s glorious theatre with Landrew supported by an award-winning Lee-Ann van Rooi for this performance, Gideon Lombard and Crystal Donna Roberts.

That’s more than enough to chew on and, as some peace for the soul, don’t forget to slip into the exhibition of festival artist Gerard Marx, who will have your head spinning and your heart leading you a different way.

• For more information, go to www.cloveraardklop.co.za.