Atandwa Kani and Sylvaine Strike. Photo by Val Adamson.
Atandwa Kani and Sylvaine Strike. Photo by Val Adamson.
Ubu and the Truth Commission plays at the Rhodes Theatre during the Grahamstown Arts Festival. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu
Ubu and the Truth Commission plays at the Rhodes Theatre during the Grahamstown Arts Festival. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

THE 40TH Anniversary of the National Arts Festival was all about celebrating artists and paying homage to a few key ones and their works that had made an impact. Certain themes ran throughout the line-up.

“I tried to go for specific groupings, linking three to four plays around a specific issue or group,” says Ishmael Mahomed, festival director.

From Marikana and miners to Muslim issues, a strong Coloured voice, classical works like macbeth. slapeloos and Desire Under the Elms, recycling new classics like Ubu and the Truth Commission and Black and Blue and a big platforms for new artists with the seven Young Artist Awards along with a smattering of young themes with the twenty-somethings telling stories for their peers – they were all there.

Crowning the festival was featured artist Sylvaine Strike who staged a diverse collection of work that honoured the festival while show- casing the artist’s dexterity.

Her wattage was turned on full blast with the opening production On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco featuring Andrew Buckland and Strike regular Toni Morkel in a supporting role.

This first-time collaboration between Buckland and Strike was luminous with both artists contributing and powerfully adding to the other’s ability. Buckland’s performance was gloriously transformative with Strike able to extend his formidable repertoire.

Similarly with Black and Blue, which premiered in 2005, but this time was performed with Atandwa Kani opposite Strike, proved another knockout blow. To witness Strike’s stage sparkle is bliss.

There’s a portrait in every look as she works in a way that seems effortless, but the detail tells the story in blazing colour. And Kani slips into his aging form with an ease that envelopes him in embraceable charm.

And then for something completely different, CARGO: Precious. Moving into collaborative overdrive which Strike has done so well at the festival, four previous Young Artists, Strike, PJ Sabbagha (dance), Concord Nkabinde (jazz) and Fana Tshabalala (dance) bound their talents together to tell a different Saartjie Baartman story.

This is most emphatically a visual account, so delicately yet provocatively expressed, it hits home with excruciating force.

Add to that Lionel Newton’s finely tuned Agreed and the God Complex starring an invigorating Daniel Buckland (see this at the upcoming 969 Fest at Wits).

Strike, being who she is, must have pondered deeply about her role as featured artist. She ticked all the boxes and did so spectacularly. Bravo!

Witnessing new work from Lara Foot is always something special. Fishers of Hope is a story that explores the drive of people whose life is constant desperation and yet something propels them, holding them back from the precipice until they have to make a choice, perhaps take that final leap of faith.

There’s a deep melancholy that holds it all together which is swept away momentarily by the jovial narrator (a jocular Mncedisi Shabangu) who kick-starts the story as he welcomes tourists to this Africa of pleasure, a place where they see the proudly stalking animals and the breathtaking sunsets but not the struggle of those battling to survive.

This is their story that dominates and what most endears about this new work is the pleasure of witnessing beautifully rounded performances. It is written in a way that centres the story and those sharing their lives.

We hear from people who hardly ever have a voice. They talk about love and loss but especially hope and how far they will push to realise their dreams. Foot offers us a lyrical lament, one that speaks quietly about lives hidden from the glare of the world. It is their harsh daily existence that forces them to grasp at any hope as strongly as they can and to hang on for dear life.

That’s sometimes the only thing to do. It’s stirring stuff and as she always does, Foot finds a way of making this story wind its way into our imaginations.

A play that raised high hopes but didn’t quite deliver – or at least not all-round – was Theatre’s Young Artist winner Greg Homann, who was perhaps too ambitious to write and direct.

[email protected]ö-nú! uses the Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus to play with the politics of the land.

It’s a brilliant and exploitable idea as the family squabbles about their dying father, where he has to be buried and who will benefit from this tragic event. Sound familiar?

And while it is the young (I’m told) who have embraced this production which is a good thing, what was missing was a balance of comedy and tragedy.

Homann could have pushed the comedy and held back on the tragedy a touch. It’s as if the two didn’t hang together side by side but clashed rather than blended. When Oedipus (David Dennis) strides out and delivers one of his speeches, you can hear the thunder, with the two bumbling prisoners and the chorus of one, almost sidelined.

The individual performances were good, yet didn’t form an ensemble, and the costumes – some more over the top than others – didn’t seem to tell a single story which was so desperately needed. It’s as if everything needed more bite.

Some more highlights in short:

Solo shows

• Wessel Pretorius who successfully presented his much-acclaimed Undone and was discovered by Grahamstown’s astute audiences. It should travel widely.

• Basil Appollis performs craftily in My Word! Redesigning Buckingham Palace about the life and words of Richard Rive. This one can travel the country as a two-hander with Denise Newman’s Cold Case: Revisiting Dulcie September, co-written with Newman and directed by Appollis.

Two impactful mining shows

• Tara Notcutt’s Undermined which strikingly captures the horror of the daily lives of miners and The Man in the Green Jacket which needs to rework the Marikana section of the play for a more powerful effect, but goes to the personal story to find the heartbeat of the full tragedy of Marikana.

A weighty presence

• Dawid Minnaar towers in the title roles of two of the festival’s BIG shows, Ubu and the Truth Commission with sparring partner Busi Zokufa as Ma Ubu and in macbeth.slapeloos.

A Spanner in the Works

• Trust Mike van Graan to find a way, brilliantly funny, to poke around playfully but no less painfully, in the state of our sometimes desperate nation.

With Steve Biko and Niel Aggett returning for a once-over 20 years on, they make their way to the questionable Nkandla. He gives us a series of cryptic exclamations of the country’s ills and young audiences have come out in support and laughter.

A Few Gems

• Anything from Jenine Collecut who did Hamlet! and Snowgoose, both perfect as festival fare.

• King Kong What What directed by Joanna Evans and mentored by Jaco Bouwer performed by two recent UCT graduates and a newcomer, all contributing to something truly special. This is new talent to watch.

• Hela, an illuminating and theatrically smart production about the African American woman whose cells saved the world – without her or her family’s permission.

This was only a snapshot and as much as I could fit into my picture.

Anniversaries by their very nature are difficult to manage. This was a reflection on the past with the Young Artists looking forward. But in next year’s festival they should build on their strong presence with a platform for emerging young artists who need to be more visible all round.

It’s time for them to speak louder from heightened platforms. We desperately want to hear their voices and what they have to say.

They have to be a bigger part of the conversation. They’re already there in audience numbers. It should be reflected on stage.