Arts and Culture 2007-2015


Notes from the National Arts Festival 2012

First appeared
Thursday, 12 July 2012


Every visit to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown brings its disappointments and consolations.

Often the disappointment comes from missing those shows and exhibits that EVERYONE is talking about – for me, in 2012, these included Brett Bailey’s Exhibit A and Afternoon of a Foehn by French company Non Nova. While Foehn delighted audiences with its playful creation of characters and mini-narratives out of plastic bags floating on air, Bailey undertook his now-customary task of producing site-specific work that makes participants feel deeply uncomfortable about their temporary occupation of the space: Exhibit A evokes the voyeuristic and racist horrors of the ‘human zoo’, challenging viewers to confront their own complicity in turning ethnic difference into spectacle.

Then there are the consolations – the reassurance of the familiar, such as walking into the foyer of the hilltop Monument that is the Festival’s hub to hear Richard Cock and his orchestral ensemble holding an audience in thrall at one of the free sunset concerts. Or seeing a favourite actor do something new: Lionel Newton in Rats, performing a trio of monologues that combine nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe with present-day South Africa. Or, let’s be honest, discovering a new spot to eat and drink and talk into the small hours.

If these are the (admittedly bourgeois) swings and roundabouts of the Festino experience, they nonetheless reflect larger shifts in the national mood from despair to delight – or perhaps, one should say, the daily changes that South Africans of all stripes experience in our attitudes towards this country. These changes, of course, affect our responses to works of art. So, for instance, if you were preoccupied by the question of land ownership and appropriation on the day you saw Yael Farber’s Mies Julie – or if news headlines and personal experiences had left you feeling gloomy about racial reconciliation in ‘post-apartheid’ South Africa – you would say that Farber's adaptation of Strindberg's classic play is right on the money.

In Mies Julie, 18 years of democracy have done little to ameliorate relationships between black and white on South Africa's farms. Here we have individuals unable to prevent themselves from conforming to type – ‘boer vrou’ and ‘angry black man’ – immersed in fatalistic tropes borrowed from the climate and landscape. Roots buried underground force their way to the surface; the storm is coming, bringing both relief from drought and potential destruction.

If there’s something Tolstoyan about the characters in Mies Julie, through whom grand historical forces move and clash, a more intimate (and, indeed, autobiographical) portrait of black/white relations is presented by Steven Cohen and Nomsa Dhlamini in The Cradle of Humankind. These two pose questions about species origins, invoking the Sterkfontein Caves and human-ape relations, but their collaboration is complicated by the fact that Dhlamini was ‘nanny’ and domestic worker to Cohen’s family for many years. Like the character of Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) in Mies Julie, she had to compromise her maternal identity to raise others’ children. And, like Bailey's ‘exhibits’, her semi-naked body – especially because of its 90-year-old frailty – alludes to a long history of (mis)representations of the black body.

Yet there are also days when one wants to affirm that identity in South Africa is so much more nuanced than can be defined by the archetypal conflict between black and white. When even so funny and poignant a work as Nicholas Spagnoletti’s London Road, a Festival favourite of recent years that is trying to make exactly such an affirmation, seems to depend on this conflict as background to the encounter between an elderly Jewish widow (Robyn Scott) and a young Nigerian drug dealer (Ntombi Makhutshi).

On such days, one turns instead to the work of an artist such as Mikhael Subotsky, whose photographs and video installations in “Retinal Shift” present the complex web of individual stories that make up the greater South African Story (at the same time, Subotsky makes us aware of the person behind the lens who chooses which stories are told). Or to a play such as Sie Weiss Alles, which transports us to SS headquarters in Berlin in 1945 but manages, remarkably, to avoid any hint of cliche or caricature. Rather, James Cairns and Taryn Bennett simply present two characters in a difficult situation. In doing so, they also revitalise Shakespeare, say everything that needs to be said about the relationship between actors and critics, and comment obliquely on complicity and redemption in South Africa.



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