In many ways, the Fringe programme is the beating heart of the National Arts Festival (NAF). It’s where works are debuted, ideas are tested, reviews are garnered, and awards are won. It’s where some of South Africa’s best-known theatre-makers have started out, and where they frequently return.
Some of the plays you encounter on the Fringe will be once-off works, others will go on to tour the smaller festivals, bigger cities, perhaps even making it abroad. As always, making your way through the list of live music, theatre, and stand-up comedy on the programme is one of the great joys and challenges of attending the NAF.
The promise of absurd theatrical humour is what’s drawing me in. In The Agents, directed by Toni Morkel, Pombo will be joined by Kyla Davis and Lisa Derryn Overy, to put forward a devised work about “the cutthroat world of property development, flipping houses, and gentrification.” Pombo’s brand of bizarre and biting satire usually always draws on the absurdity of everyday life, and when it comes to the realm of South African real estate, I imagine The Agents will be as illuminating as it is amusing.
Land is intimately tied to notions of identity, home, culture, and belonging. When one’s connection to the land is severed – spiritually, systemically – the process of working towards restitution and repair is a long and difficult one. Art, in its myriad forms, becomes a vital tool for the excavation of these complex processes and heavy histories.
Swartwater reimagines the losses experienced by the Nama Khoi people during colonisation and the discovery of diamonds in the 1900s. The play follows a Nama family as they are forced to leave their Swartwater home.
Written and directed by Geralt Cloete, a Nama Khoi cultural practitioner, performer, and applied theatre practitioner, Swartwater looks like it could be one of the highlights of this year’s Fringe. Through the unique lens of storytelling, Cloete along with the cast and their dramaturg, Lee-Ann Van Rooi, have the opportunity to situate audiences in an essential, albeit painful, part of South Africa’s collective history and posit a way forward, or perhaps a new way of reflecting on the past.
I saw Cruise in 2022 when it debuted at Johannesburg’s Theatre Linden, an 80-something-year-old church transformed into an independent theatre space in 2021. The venue provided an interesting setting for Jack Holden’s story about UK queer culture in the 80s, and how the Aids crisis changed the queer community.
The play is essentially one long, engaging narrative containing myriad characters, settings and events, all expertly conjured and held by performer Daniel Geddes. At the time, I wondered how the play might have adapted to its setting in South Africa a bit more, given the country’s own history with HIV and Aids. So, I’m interested to see how the play does in Makhanda, and how it might have changed, if at all. At 93 minutes, it’ll be one of the longer plays on the Fringe, but Geddes should have no problem keeping audiences immersed from beginning to end.
There’s a lot of “serious” theatre on the Fringe this year – plays grappling with issues of gender-based violence, poverty, landlessness and more. This is a good thing. A country’s theatre should reflect upon and provide new ways of reckoning with its most pervasive issues. Still, there is the need to pay attention to the smaller stories within the grand narratives and a play like May I Have This Dance, which “follows the story of a Millenial couple as they attempt to navigate the tricky terrain of co-dependence, communication, love and loss,” feels like one such story.
This is not to say that May I Have This Dance isn’t “serious” work. I’m interested in its narrative simplicity and the complicated, but universal themes it might hold. I missed the play at last year’s Festival, where it won a Silver Ovation Award, so I look forward to seeing it at this year’s NAF.
In terms of the 2022 Festival’s theatre offerings, Sophie Joans’ Île was easily one of my highlights. The humorous and profound coming-of-age story grappled with mother-daughter relationships, notions of ancestry and inheritance, contemporary identity, belonging and more.
I’m including it on my 2023 list because part of the magic of the Fringe is being able to journey with a production as an audience member. As mentioned, the Fringe is a space to test ideas, and to adapt and refine according to the reviews and audience feedback.
Île had a magnificent physical debut last year (after showing virtually when we all attended the NAF via our laptops – what a time). Does this mean that it returns to the 2023 Festival unchanged? Have Joans and director Rob van Vuuren (a Fringe veteran himself) decided to switch up or do away with any elements of the work, or have they decided not to mess with a good thing? We’ll have to wait and see.
In case you missed it
Here are our top picks from the main programme: What to see on this year’s Curated Programme.
The line-up and info for the National Jazz Festival Makhanda.