Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Louis Maqhubela's Vigil

First appeared
Thursday, 23 September 2010


If, as the Biblical saying has it, a prophet is never recognised in his own country, then it seems the same is true of artists living in exile. Many South African writers, actors, musicians and visual artists who left the country to escape the constraints of apartheid were acclaimed in their adopted countries but were largely forgotten at home.

This, certainly, seems to have been the case with Louis Khehla Maqhubela. Resident in London since the 1970s, Maqhubela has only occasionally had his work prominently exhibited in the land of his birth; consequently, its significance in both the development of “township art” and what might be termed “modernist abstraction” in South African art has rarely been acknowledged.


Jock of the Bushveld: The Musical

First appeared
Thursday, 23 September 2010


Reviewers should always be honest about their prejudices, so let me begin by saying: I have a sentimental attachment to a particular manifestation of the Jock of the Bushveld story. Like many of my generation, I would imagine, I was introduced belatedly to Johnny Clegg when I heard the song “Great Heart” soaring over the final credits of Gray Hofmeyr’s 1986 film – as I struggled to come to terms with the sad, premature and ultimately bathetic death of South Africa’s most famous dog.

I avoided the 1995 “Americanised” version after hearing that the ending had been revised to keep the mood upbeat, and I don’t expect I’ll be too enthused by the much-vaunted 3D animation due to be released in 2011 (even though Duncan MacNeillie, who co-wrote the 1986 screenplay with Greg Latter, is involved). Revisiting the original memoir by Sir Percy Fitzpatrick, published in multiple impressions since it first appeared in 1907, I have been struck by its painfully – albeit understandably – colonial overtones, its glamorising of the hunter myth and its lyrical misconstrual of “the African bushveld” rather than its innocently epic man-and-his-best-friend motif.


Arts Alive 2010

First appeared
Tuesday, 07 September 2010


Johannesburg in August is dry and bleak. The winter cold starts to ease, but after months with no rain the ground is hard, the grass is yellow and the Highveld sky is thick with dust. The bare branches of trees are softened by a few brave blossoms, but spring still seems far away.

The seasons change “officially” on the first day of September; typically, the rains haven’t arrived by then, but somehow pockets of green develop and – just occasionally, usually at dawn and dusk – experienced locals catch the scent of moisture in the air. The city’s mood starts to change. Soon the thunderstorms will come.

There’s something very reassuring in this predictable cycle. Despite political turmoil, despite economic instability, despite even the prospect of climate change, year by year the shift from winter to spring provides some comfort to Jozi’s burdened, stressed-out citizens.


Evita in/and South Africa

First appeared
Thursday, 09 September 2010


Montecasino is not known as a hub of ‘political’ theatre. Indeed, when producer Pieter Toerien and director Paul Warwick Griffin decided to stage Evita as the latest of their ‘bonsai musicals’ (grand shows on a relatively small stage with a comparatively small cast), they could hardly have foreseen that its opening would coincide with the tail-end of the most devastating strike this country has seen for some years. Yet the social and political fault-lines so clearly manifested in the strike are also evident in Evita, giving it a renewed relevance to South African audiences.


Revisiting some "classics" on SA's stages

First appeared
Thursday, 19 August 2010


At a function during Chilean activist-author Ariel Dorfman’s recent visit to South Africa, ageing doyenne of South African letters Nadine Gordimer suggested that since 1994 the country’s theatre practitioners have been able to “tackle the present” more effectively than our writers.

What this comment – if it is valid – implies about South African literature remains a moot point, but there are few who would contest the assertion that the post-apartheid era has produced some wonderful plays “tackling the present”. Since the World Cup, however, there has been a bit of a lull; after the usual glut of new pieces at the National Arts Festival two months ago, there’s now a temporary dearth of original material on South Africa’s stages.


Waiting for Godot in South Africa

First appeared
Tuesday, 17 August 2010


When Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – a play in which the second act is a distorted mirror of the first – was first performed in the 1950s, a bemused critic wrote: “Nothing happens, twice”. Yet that same reviewer (Vivian Mercier) also acknowledged that the playwright “keeps audiences glued to their seats”. Indeed, Waiting for Godot subsequently became one of the most celebrated and widely performed plays of the twentieth century. So “nothing” has been happening an awful lot on stages across the globe over the last five decades.

Vladimir and Estragon, two down-and-out tramps, wait under a dead tree on a nameless road for the appearance of a mysterious Mr Godot. With only one another’s company to relieve the monotony of their (ultimately unfulfilled) expectation, they pass the time bickering and singing, remembering and complaining, laughing and crying, until they encounter another duo desperately searching for meaning: the master-and-slave Pozzo and Lucky. “Didi” and “Gogo” – nicknames demonstrating the intimacy of their relationship, despite their constant disagreements – are by turns clowns and poets. They are preoccupied by physical discomfort, but every so often they voice profound metaphysical questions. Godot is an enigma because these questions are never quite answered ... unless, of course, the answer is “nothing”.


Review: Le Grand Cirque

First appeared
Thursday, 29 July 2010


Unfortunately, people tend to be more impressed by demonstrations of seeming brute strength than they are by subtlety or nuance or complexity; likewise, superficial style is typically preferred to actual substance. In South Africa we evince a particularly acute form of these collective human traits – witness our country’s common practice of deferring to “the big man”.

It’s the reason that our political preferences hinge around personalities rather than principles or institutions. It’s the reason that we were lured into the mystique of Bakkies “the enforcer” Botha, and are only now coming round to the fact that the man represents a form of rugby akin to adolescent bullying. It’s the reason that we have bought wholesale into the global cult of celebrity, only to find VIP planes clogging our airstrips and VIP convoys displacing “ordinary” citizens from the roads.


National Arts Festival 2010

First appeared
Friday, 16 July 2010

I’m not much of a crier. Usually, the most I can do is to choke up a little bit, perhaps with a vague prickling sensation behind my eyes. But when I went to Grahamstown, the tears came.

It was day three of my visit – an annual pilgrimage I make to the home of the National Arts Festival, which remains South Africa’s biggest platform for theatre, music, visual art, dance, craft and just about any other form of “arts and culture” you could care to name.


Review: The House of the Holy Afro

First appeared
Thursday, 01 July 2010


Can disco, with all its garish excesses and camp ironies, be a spiritual experience? What about the techno of the late eighties and early nineties, or twenty-first century house, or kwaito, or any of the other musical styles found in nightclubs? These are questions that audiences (to use the term loosely) will find themselves asking while enjoying Brett Bailey’s The House of the Holy Afro – and, by the end of the evening, they are likely to answer with an unambiguous “yes”. 

The show, which has been touring on and off overseas for some years, has a run in Johannesburg that is coterminous with the duration of the World Cup. It could in some ways be seen as the Market Theatre’s “official” offering for both South Africans and international visitors when their attention is turned temporarily away from matters on the football field (it’s a late-night gig and so does not compete with any of the evening games). 


Interview: Brett Bailey

First appeared
Wednesday, 23 June 2010


Acclaimed theatre-maker and director Brett Bailey has “no interest in sport”, he tells me, and while the 2010 FIFA World Cup is underway in South Africa he will be in the Himalayas “taking a well-earned break” – his “first holiday in many years”.

Nonetheless, it is no small coincidence that the Market Theatre is hosting his latest show, The House of the Holy Afro, from 11 June to 11 July: the month stretching from kick-off to the final whistle of the football competition. The Market, like most arts institutions across the country, wants to use the World Cup as an opportunity to showcase South Africa and Africa’s artistic talent to the many thousands of visitors from overseas (and, in addition, to attract local audiences who are looking for something more than soccer). 


Review: The Boys in the Photograph

First appeared
Friday, 11 June 2010


Almost every arts and culture institution in South Africa, hoping to capitalise on the FIFA road show, has some kind of “World Cup offering” during June and July. To its credit, however, the Joburg Theatre is not one of the many who have been hanging around in the goalmouth waiting for an opportunistic score. To extend the footballing metaphor, one might suggest that Joburg Theatre CEO (manager/coach?) Bernard Jay and his team have been implementing a long-term strategy; they bring integrity, careful planning and no small amount of skillful execution to their participation in the event.


Review: "I am not me, the horse is not mine"

First appeared
Friday, 28 May 2010


It is no exaggeration to state that William Kentridge is currently the most highly regarded South African artist. He has worked with various forms and media, from film and animation to charcoal drawings, printmaking and sculpture. A Lecoq-trained actor and mime (although he has always denied any talent as a performer), Kentridge has worked over the years as both designer and director in various stage productions – from puppetry to, most recently, opera.

His production of Mozart’s Magic Flute received worldwide acclaim before wowing local audiences in 2007. Kentridge’s latest operatic endeavour, an adaptation of Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera The Nose, premiered in New York in March. It is a mark of his protracted creative engagement with the subject matter that as early as 2008 Kentridge put together an exhibition of film fragments documenting the process of researching, workshopping and recording visual material relating to The Nose. The curiously-titled “I am not me, the horse is not mine” was first screened at the Iziko South African National Gallery and has now come to the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG).


Preview: "The Framework"

First appeared
Sunday, 23 May 2010


All of Shakespeare’s plays give expression, at some point, to the playwright’s egalitarian impulses. The most famous of them, Hamlet, is no exception – the protagonist’s graveside musing takes delight in the fact that the powerful and wealthy will eventually decompose, becoming nothing more than mud and dust.

Hamlet does not, however, have the ability to escape his ‘station’ in life; he cannot blur the lines of class, nationality and gender that define his identity. That privilege belongs instead to his beloved players, the travelling troupe of actors who take on different roles with each performance: from kings to peasants and from generals to shoemakers.

A group of South African actors is currently experiencing an acute form of this role-swapping – and discovering the rich theatrical possibilities it contains.


Farce in SA: Boeing Boeing

First appeared
Thursday, 06 May 2010


Conventional wisdom has it that you have to be in the right mood when you go to the theatre to watch a farce. If you’re grumpy, or angry, or tired, or stressed – or terribly serious for whatever reason – then slapstick comedy, mistaken identities, bawdy puns and caricatured characters are likely to get on your nerves.

The counter-argument, of course, is that it’s precisely when you’re feeling low that you need a medicinal dose of silliness: laughter for laughter’s sake has beneficial side-effects. If that’s the case, then it would make sense that farce on the South African stage is a popular phenomenon.


Nik Rabinowitz is uNik

First appeared
Thursday, 29 April 2010


Nik Rabinowitz would seem to defy stereotype. He consciously promotes himself as a Xhosa-speaking Jewish boy whose upbringing straddled the disparate worlds of wealthy suburb and rural farm (in ‘Plumstead West’, also known as Constantia in Cape Town). Implicit in this self-mocking description, however, is an acknowledgement that in some ways he cannot help but conform to type: the white kid with the privileged background – he went to a Waldorf primary school, after all – trying to find a new identity for himself in post-apartheid South Africa.

As with most stand-up comics, of course, his humour relies heavily on the stereotypical assumptions of his audience: the Jewish kugel, the fat black ‘mama’, the Afrikaans dunce. But, like the best comedians, every now and then he turns these prejudices on their heads.

Latest from Arts & Culture