The post-Festival blues are still with me. This year’s National Arts Festival was one for the books, and a gorgeous reminder of the enduring ability of the arts to tell stories, to heal, to highlight and hold.
This was my 10th year covering the Festival. That’s not a long time, given its history (the Festival will celebrate its 50th next year), but it’s enough time to have witnessed some significant changes and developments. The Village Green has moved twice; print died and sent the Festival programme, the Cue, and the entire ticketing system online; that creepy hypnotist isn’t around anymore (thank goodness); there’s less water and more potholes; fewer posters around town and more sponsored ads on our feeds. Still, the artists and the audiences are there, filling the galleries and the theatres and walking away changed, improved, edified for having engaged with art and the unique lens through which it helps us see the world.
At a glance, this year’s Festival was home to works dealing with historical and contemporary injustice, inherited trauma, gender-based violence, fragmented identity, environmental crises, anxiety, migration and more. It sounds unpleasant, sure, but to see the country’s most pressing issues being reflected and channelled through its artists is, in my opinion, the very point of something like the National Arts Festival. We go to be healed, educated, challenged, and held by the arts. Still, there is lightness, too – all stories, whether lighthearted or challenging, have the power to uplift and transport us to someplace outside of our everyday lives and perspectives. The below are simply a few of the stories I was able to experience at this year’s Festival.
On an icy Thursday evening, I head to the Princess Alice Hall on African street. I’d been seeing snippets of The Agents on Instagram. It promised to be a satirical show and, given the combination of Roberto Pombo, Kyla Davis and Lisa Derryn Overy, I knew it was probably going to get weird – in the best way. It does. Seemingly a play about a trio of overzealous and shameless real estate agents, the play unravels a slow approach to a certain end – our burning planet. The Agents, along with the security vultures and attack dogs that follow them, keep peddling new properties, upgraded facilities, increased levels of safety and quality of life. All the while, the world around them grows smaller, darker, increasingly without air, food, and water. It is a superb gut punch, delivered at the end of a fast and furious performance by the trio. I leave the theatre energised, equipped with a renewed sense of urgency about the way I live in the world. The Agents later went on to win an Ovation Award. I sincerely hope it travels.
“It’s Shakespeare, but the actors get really high,” says a colleague in response to what now feels like a rather obvious question: “What’s Baked Shakespeare?”
One of the crowd favourites of this year’s Festival was As You Like It, performed by the Cape Town-based theatre company Baked Shakespeare. It works like this: The actors are brought out in two groups and introduced individually. Whoever gets the loudest applause becomes one of two actors who’ll be getting extraordinarily high on stage. Five paddles are handed out to the audience who, at any time, can raise them and force the chosen actors to pause mid-scene or mid-sentence, and hit a bong. As you can imagine, Shakespearean prose becomes a little tricky to navigate when you’re five bongs deep.
I was sceptical at first. Stoner humour’s not really my thing and the whole premise sounded gimmicky. I ended up loving it. All of the magic, the risk, the storytelling and the live components of theatre are still there, but the audience is involved in a novel way. Importantly, Baked Shakespeare seems to be garnering new audiences. The venue was packed, and full of folks young and old. They might not all walk out with a new love for the bard, sure, but many of them might have experienced that rare energy that takes place in the theatre when a story gets told collaboratively, passionately. If you don’t consider yourself to be much of a theatre person, one of Baked Shakespeare’s shows might be a great place to change your mind.
Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here has been on my list since Thami Majela was awarded the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Dance and the Rhodes Theatre was just the venue for it. Majela and his team take up the entire stage with a striking display of visual theatre. Lighting and set design by Mandla Mtshali is vital in this regard, but so is the way in which Majela and his fellow dancers, Sibonelo Mchunu, Tawanda Mandara, and Mahmoud Mbega utilise the stage. Over the course of Don’t Let the Sun Set on You Here, they leap out from the shadows, the wings, and right up to the front of the stage. The choreography is resolute and mesmeric, and they have us captivated all the way through.
The hour-long performance is less of a clearly defined narrative than a series of complex and beautiful conversations held through the language of dance. As audience members, we are content to watch these conversations unfold – to eavesdrop. The performance lingers, too. Standing up and exiting the theatre, I feel somehow more in touch – more in conversation – with the world around me.
Is there anything that an evening of jazz can’t cure? Art is no panacea, I know, but it must be the closest thing to it. Tired, strained, and with deadlines looming, I decide to book a last-minute ticket for Iladi, Linda Sikhakhane’s first performance of the National Jazz Festival. It’s the best decision I’ve made all day. The 2022 Standard Bank Young Artist for Jazz is on top form and joining him on stage are Shane Cooper on double bass, Afrika Mkhize on keys, and Ayanda Sikade on drums. They are an absolute joy to witness. Central to Sikhakhane’s performances this year is the acknowledgement of gifts and guidance. In this way, his performances serve as “a meditation for reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness through sound.”
He succeeds. The performance is at once meditative and celebratory, made all the more memorable by the chemistry of the musicians on stage, and the surprise appearance of Sikhakhane’s brother, Thabo Sikhakhane, on trumpet. There is something alchemic at work, too. As we listen to the low rumble of Cooper’s double bass, and the crashing cymbals of Sikade’s drums, a storm brews and ultimately breaks over the venue. We exit to the smell of rain and soil. We are refreshed, renewed, changed.
The moments outside the theatres, galleries and concert halls are just as memorable. The Long Table is the site for endless reflection on what we’ve seen, what we ought to see, and what we need to avoid seeing at all costs. Makhanda’s many coffee houses are places of respite from the rain and the crowds, and its restaurants are alive with conversation. At the Village Green, people shop, eat, drink at the beer tent or lounge around on the grass, making the most of a sunny day. Up at the Monument, when we’re not seeing shows or attending exhibition walkabouts, we’re taking in the view of the city, down there in its little valley, a cosy cluster of church steeples, university buildings, and donkey-friendly streets.
The Festival is still crunching the numbers at this stage – although what we know so far is that ticket sales are up by more than 50% from last year, and the Festival website garnered around 90 000 unique visitors. Still, we will be awaiting answers to the same questions as always – has the Festival served the artists, the town, the province? Has it sustained itself? Will it survive? There is a tendency to look back, always, in order to make sense of where we’re going. After two years of an online Festival, and a somewhat slow return to physical form in 2022, the sheer joy of attending the 2023 Festival lies in the ability to immerse oneself, wholly, in the present moment.
This year, as far as my experience goes, the 2023 Festival was an enormous success. I saw full theatres, pop-up performances all around town, and restaurants regularly running out of seating space. I also saw younger audiences falling in love with art, and new generations of artists, musicians and theatremakers making the Festival stages their own. I saw art that challenged, educated, entertained, and changed me. It is as simple and as vital as that.