Arts and Culture 2007-2015

21Jul

National Arts Festival 2008: Literature-on-stage

First appeared
Saturday, 19 July 2008

The dichotomy between page and stage may be a false one, but it is a common enough assumption (albeit unconscious) that the literary text implies a reader-writer dynamic, while the theatrical production depends on an actor-audience relationship, and never the twain shall meet.

The ancient Greeks – as with so many other things – had it right: they used the same word, poet, to describe Homer and Euripides, Orpheus and Aeschylus. Of course, the irony here is that legendary or mythical figures like Homer and Orpheus were poets in the oral tradition, while playwrights like Euripides and Aeschylus committed their dramatic creations to paper (many of which were lost in the fires that destroyed the great library of Alexandria).

10Jul

National Arts Festival 2008: "Romeo and Juliet"

First appeared
Sunday, 06 July 2008

 

Very few people who attend the annual National Arts Festival in Grahamstown know that this country’s flagship cultural event has its roots in a comparatively modest festival of Shakespeare productions and lectures held in 1974, linked to a conference on “English-speaking South Africa” and not as far removed as the organisers had perhaps hoped from the jingoism and colonial cringing that was still strongly associated with ‘Englishness’ south of the Limpopo at that time.

Shakespearean criticism and performance has changed a lot since then, and over three decades there have been hundreds of different manifestations of Shakespeare’s plays at the Festival. 2008 is the first year that there is no ‘straight’ Shakespeare performance on in Grahamstown; but there are nevertheless three adaptations that offer rich pickings for bardolators and bardophobes alike.

09Jul

National Arts Festival 2008: Amanda Strydom

First appeared
Saturday, 05 July 2008

The Graham Protea Hotel in Grahamstown’s High Street is a nice enough place to stay, I’ve been told; but when you’re going there to watch a show at the National Arts Festival, you don’t consider that – you simply pass through the bustle of the foyer into the perpetual twilight of the function room. It’s a potentially gloomy spot, with a makeshift stage and rows of temporary chairs on the dull carpet. When the lights go down, however, and some of South Africa’s finest musical talents (from veterans such as Tony Cox to relative unknowns like Fly Paper Jet) take the stage, it is transformed into a magical space.

This metamorphosis was more pronounced than usual when Amanda Strydom brought her “Soul Songs” to the 2008 Festival.

09Jul

National Arts Festival 2008: "Cissie"

First appeared
Sunday, 06 July 2008

 

There are struggle heroes, and then there are struggle heroes.

Martin Koboekae’s Biko: Where the Soul Resides has opened at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, eliciting a mixed response to its attempts “to show the man behind the icon”. Also debuting at the Festival is Nadia Davids’ new play, Cissie, which offers an intimate biography of one of this country’s more enigmatic political figures. Whereas Biko is internationally renowned, Cissie Gool – though she campaigned tirelessly against the racist laws of the Union government and subsequently against the apartheid state – remains unknown to most South Africans outside of the Western Cape. She was quintessentially a Capetonian, born and bred there by her Scottish mother and Indian-Malay father, and it was for the rights of the disenfranchised people of Cape Town (most famously for the people of District Six) that she fought throughout her life. 

07Jul

National Arts Festival, Grahamstown, 2008

First appeared
Saturday, 05 July 2008

As a general rule, I don’t like standing ovations. They’re usually manifestations of a herd mentality rather than considered expressions of the highest acclaim for a performing artist.

Over the last few days, however, I’ve found myself joining the ranks of those who rise to their feet in enthusiastic tribute. Of the first ten shows that I watched at this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, at least half received standing ovations – and thoroughly merited them. Most of the rest were equally good. Indeed, it was only towards the end of my third day at the Festival that I saw my first mediocre piece of theatre (one that shall remain unidentified). This was almost a relief; every Festino worth his or her salt needs to be able to disrecommend at least one show when schmoozing with the bohemian see-and-be-seen crowds at drinking holes in the early hours of the morning. Bad-mouthing certain productions is a Grahamstown tradition.

25Jun

Review: Mummenschanz 3x11

First appeared
Saturday, 21 June 2008

“Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence...”

You would imagine that the Desiderata has little in common with a theatre phenomenon variously described by critics in Europe, America and Australasia as “dazzling”, “a spectacle” and even “a gigglefest”. What, after all, could Max Ehrmann’s austere spiritual poem have to do with a group of actors, dancers and clowns that have (in various forms) been performing together for over three decades – including an unbroken three-year stint on Broadway?

15Jun

Review: "Kissed by Brel Too"

First appeared
Saturday, 14 June 2008

 

About a year ago, in one of the cavernous Grahamstown school halls used as theatre venues at the National Arts Festival, I discovered Jacques Brel. Of course, I’d heard of Brel before, and knew some of the popular versions of his songs: “If We Only Have Love”, “Jackie”, or the more saccharine renditions of “Seasons in the Sun”. But it was only when I attended a performance of Kissed by Brel, watching and listening in awe as Claire Watling (accompanied on the piano by Godfrey Johnson) brought Brel’s lyrics and melodies to life, that I realised quite how remarkable a poet and musician he was.

10Jun

Original Skin: Phillippa Yaa de Villiers

First appeared
Saturday, 07 June 2008

What does it mean to be ‘coloured’? The narrator of Njabulo Ndebele’s novella Fools describes “the tragic illusion of people conditioned to draw their greatest inspiration from the little white blood in them ... living in the perpetual uncertainty of not knowing whether they are loved or hated.” Guy Butler, one of many white writers who have presumed to write about coloured experience, noted that “the contemplation of this most unethnic of South Africa’s ethnic groups has, from the beginning, evoked a mixed response: mingled affection and contempt, liking and loathing” and, elsewhere, wrote sardonically about “the great disgrace” of “a touch of the tarbrush” in one’s face.

10Jun

Counting Crows back in South Africa

First appeared
Saturday, 07 June 2008

When Counting Crows first toured South Africa in August 1999, they played to a packed house at the Sun City Superbowl. The Springboks had just lost to the All Blacks and frontman Adam Duritz commiserated with the crowd, but when a few patriotic fans started waving South African flags, Adam’s response was curt: “Hey man, this is rock’n’roll, put those f***ing flags away!”

Since then, I’ve been wanting to ask the Crows about the link between music and politics – especially at a time when, from global warming to third world debt, it’s pretty sexy for rock stars to wear their political colours on their sleeves. After all, the band has demonstrated an ongoing social commitment through its Greybird Foundation, which raises money for needy causes, and they are actively encouraging Americans to vote in the upcoming presidential elections. But there’s little overtly ‘political’ content in their music.

09Jun

"For the Sake of Silence": Michael Cawood Green (Umuzi)

First appeared
Thursday, 12 June 2008

 

There will be those who delight in the obvious joke about this book: that a work titled For the Sake of Silence (one in which, moreover, the narrator frequently meditates on the undesirability of words) extends to some 550 pages. Yet such a glib response to the length of what will no doubt prove to be Michael Green’s magnum opus is inappropriate on at least two counts.

The first is that Green’s subject – the life and times of Franz Pfanner, Trappist monk and unlikely but highly successful missionary – is the stuff of epic, and merits the thorough and detailed chronicle he offers. Pfanner’s star burned brightly in Catholic Europe and Southern Africa during the second half of the nineteenth century, both reinvigorating and undermining the centuries-old monastic order of which he became one of the most famous, if also one of the most controversial, members.

26May

Jean Jansem: "Expressioniste Humaniste"

First appeared
Saturday, 24 May 2008

 

Jean Jansem’s Expressioniste Humaniste opened last week at Johannesburg’s Everard Read gallery amidst a flurry of air kisses and idle chit-chat. The city’s well-to-do denizens flocked to see and be seen at an exhibition by this internationally prized French artist: investors aiming to use those all-important little red dots to secure artworks selling into the millions, socialites enjoying the chance to network or gossip over a glass of red wine.

If this reviewer was more aware than usual of an atmosphere of frivolity and pretension, it is because Jansem’s work is anything but frivolous or pretentious. Indeed, most of the pieces on display in this exhibition are portraits of forlorn and morose-looking women. When their faces are visible, their eyes express regret or anxiety; when their backs are turned, their exposed skin and closed posture make them seem vulnerable.

25May

Isak Roux: "Coming Home"

First appeared
Saturday, 24 May 2008

 

The Johannesburg City Hall is one of those architectural gems largely unknown to most residents of the conurbation that is greater Joburg. Built in 1915, it has survived – like a handful of other fine buildings in ‘the dodgy part of town’ – our local developers’ obsession with demolishing any building over half a century old. (This is, by the way, a well-established habit; in an essay titled “Old Joburg is Vanishing” that is itself more venerable than most of the buildings in ‘new Joburg’, Herman Charles Bosman wrote: “I sorrow for the buildings and the people who have gone. People and things that have vanished like hopes. All gone into the unremembering dust ...”)

08May

Christine Pedi's "Great Dames"

First appeared
Saturday, 03 May 2008

We might joke about “the uncultured yanks”, but South Africans (like most people worldwide) imbibe American culture from a young age. We take this for granted when it comes to TV shows, movies and mainstream music, but it’s also true of the theatre – particularly musical theatre. Just ask those who have produced or performed in local stagings of popular musicals like Chicago, Hair or The Rocky Horror Show, which regularly play to packed houses while other productions languish in front of small audiences.

08May

Review: "Karoo Moose"

First appeared
Saturday, 03 May 2008

Lara Foot Newton is an optimist. The plays that she has written all demonstrate a belief in the possibility of redemption – or, at least, the redemptive power of theatre – in the midst of socio-political and personal milieus that constantly offer reasons to be pessimistic.

In Tshepang (2003), she re-imagined the desperate, poverty-stricken lives of those involved in one of South Africa’s perverse infant rape cases, but was able to make a minimal gesture of comfort to the mother of the child. In Hear and Now (2005), she portrayed the fraught relationship between a longsuffering woman and a physically and emotionally crippled man, but nevertheless affirmed the value of that relationship. In Reach (2007), she depicted a transformation from racial mistrust, loneliness, bitterness and even suicidal despair into companionship and encouragement through the growing friendship between a young black man and an ageing white woman.

30Apr

Chicago: pizzazz and jazz with a killer cast

First appeared
Saturday, 26 April 2008

Okay, I’ll admit it upfront: I’m a Chicago nut. The jazz, the pizzazz, the razzmatazz; the witty lyrics, the score that leaps from booming brass to sultry strings, the lithe bodies, the sharp satire. But – here’s the embarrassing part – until recently I’d only seen the 2002 movie (and listened repeatedly to the soundtrack). I didn’t catch Chicago: The Musical when it was first performed on South African stages a couple of years ago, something I regretted all the more when I heard friends describing how it was such a polished production that “even the cigarette smoke was in synch”.

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