THE FIRST day at any arts festival is always an exciting one because it seems to set the tone. If it starts well, it’s almost a good omen of what’s to come – but then it can also happen that a bad day can’t be all bad because things can only get better.

Fortunately, in this 40th celebratory year the start has been an extraordinary one with Sylvaine Strike’s On The Harmful Effects of Tobacco quite sublime with a performance by Andrew Buckland that leaves you searching for superlatives.

Enough said to underline that. Together they’re a knockout combination. Add Toni Morkel to the mix and you have a killer show. It’s brilliant theatre so watch out for it as it travels the country as it surely must.

There have been quite a few plays in the past about domestic workers (or home administrators as the prefer to be titled), and this year’s official student production from Wits had as its aim to begin a new dialogue.

Maids in Mzansi (Gauteng can watch out for it as part of the 969 festival which starts at Wits on July 15) was devised with a young cast and that’s what gives it such a fresh air. Rather than speak for these workers, what they did was to go out and find some real stories.

That’s what makes this one so authentic and while much of it seems to be tackled in lighter vein, it’s not all that funny because unfortunately, most of us will recognise that many of these scenarios are all too real.

It’s yet another South African story which deals with situations that haven’t changed for so many, even 20 years into our democracy. How many have listened to the arguments that people can’t afford to pay more but the women are so desperate, they would rather work for hardly enough money to pay their travel expenses than not at all.

That’s the tragedy of their lives, and yet the students have managed to approach this with a soft touch while making sure the hard facts in full colour get out there.

This is a story that needs to be told over and over again so that people can witness the horror of some lives. Invisible, disrespected, nameless, those are just a few of the descriptions bandied about.

But there is some joy to be had from the cast. There’s not a weak link and these young actresses can sing. There are some voices worthy of solo singing careers. It was impossible to resist singling out Siphumelele Chagwe with eyes that speak even louder than her words. Remember that name.

She is going to be out there on stages and screens as soon as she graduates – and that goes for almost everyone on that stage.

Student theatre is usually last on our list simply because the professional productions are too many to make those choices but this is one that was worth catching, both for the cast and the content. It’s the kind of stories we should be telling. We owe this visibility at the very least.

Wretched starring Jeremy Richard and Emilie Owen has a title that belies its sweet nature. It’s about love, the nature of the beast in these blissful situations and how, when love gets messy, we need to expunge those dark thoughts. It’s perfect for a festival, an hour long, with two actors who show rather than speak about their feelings.

It needs to run even more sweetly, with everything flowing smoothly from one blackout to the next and gestures pushed even more. This is where dramatic rather than subtlety enhances rather than detracts.

It’s a modern-day love story with old-fashioned musical notes that set the mood and a dollop of Tarantino just to add a squeamish factor. This is another one that should travel fairly easily. And language isn’t a factor.

The closing offer for the night left me puzzled more than anything else. It’s obviously the latest thing at Dutch festivals because it’s the second one in this particular style that has played local festivals this year.

This one was The Liberation of an Angry Little Man starring Sjoerd Meyer telling a story of a baby born in 1879. The only difference with the earlier performance was the story and the actor.

The telling is done in almost conspiratorial fashion as if the audience is being let in on a secret, but in both instances, while the intrigue was there, the build-up felt much bigger than the conclusion which leaves you wondering whether what you witnessed was theatre.

Let’s make allowances, though, for completely missing the point because it did win a fringe award in Amsterdam.

And that was just the start of 10 mostly glorious days of theatre…