Arts and Culture 2007-2015


48 hours at the National Arts Festival 2013

First appeared
Thursday, 04 July 2013


It would be easy to say that the fragile state of Nelson Mandela has hung like a pall over proceedings at the 2013 National Arts Festival. That is, however, simply not accurate. Certainly, there has been more-than-casual, more-than-usual browsing of Twitter feeds and catching of news headlines. But the fact is that the Festino crowds – artists, audiences, producers, consumers, service providers, hipsters, partygoers, vendors and travelling bohemians – gathering in Grahamstown are simply going about their individual and collective business more or less as they have been doing for years.

That, one is tempted to affirm, is how Madiba would want it: as an activist, politician and humanitarian, he understood the value of the arts (in both an instrumentalist and a purely aesthetic sense). But to make such a claim is to enter the realm of conjecture – to leap into the stream of educated guesswork that has formed much of the reporting on, and analysis of, Mandela’s mortality.

With so little information to go on, official or otherwise, but determined nonetheless to keep up the momentum of the story, journalists have generally resorted to a mixture of speculation and irrelevant detail. Hearsay about life support machinery counteracted by rumours of improvement or possible recovery; descriptions of the pot plants that well-wishers have left outside the Heart Hospital in Pretoria.

There is something terribly mundane about this, something small and absurd and sad in its inability to match the grand scale of Mandela’s achievements – something, in short, anti-climactic. Artists and art critics have a word for this kind of anti-climax: bathos. It is typically used to humorous effect, but it can also convey tragedy and sorrow in a minor key.

The handful of productions I saw at this year’s National Arts Festival demonstrated an awareness of these twin possibilities. Their performers, carefully attuned to the dangers of taking oneself too seriously or of being caught in a fit of lyricism, choose self-parody over self-congratulation. This, it seems to me, reflects a deep distrust of the self-important rhetoric that dominates our national discourses.

In his unorthodox stand-up comedy show WHATWHAT, Rob van Vuuren has some raucous fun (mostly at the expense of Australians) and then, in the midst of expletives and crude gags, takes his audience into a quiet, sacred space under the spotlight. Here he reflects on the big things: life and love and death. But before this risks indulgence or sentimentality, he’s joking again about horny teenagers and Gayle slang and contemporary dance.

Van Vuuren also teams up with James Cairns and Albert Pretorius in the acclaimed The Three Little Pigs, a dark political thriller-satire directed by Tara Notcutt that has been a sellout success and is on its way to the Edinburgh and Amsterdam Fringe Festivals (after a brief stint in Bloemfontein at the Vryfees from 9-14 July). This updated fable lures us into the hope that truth and justice will prevail in South Africa but leaves us instead with the grim realities of self-preservation and -promotion.

Crazy in Love, too, refuses to provide the happy conclusion that audiences might wish for its characters. Andrew Buckland joins Conspiracy of Clowns duo Liezl de Kock and Rob Murray to tell the story of a vagabond father and daughter’s quixotic – and therefore doomed – quest to find the wife and mother who abandoned them years ago.

Another warped parent-child relationship is explored in The Last Show, featuring Toni Morkel and Roberto Pombo (under Jemma Kahn’s direction) as a mother and son who have to adjust to life in a Brixton flat after leaving the luxury of Dainfern. Here again, though we might instinctively yearn to see the healing of wounded minds and souls, the play has no solace to offer. (The Last Show will travel to Johannesburg as part of the 969 Festival from 9-21 July.)

Finally, it is worth mentioning Florence Foster Jenkins, a Dutch production that came to the National Arts Festival via the World Fringe Alliance and that is part of Grahamstown’s ever-growing contingent of international artists. If ever there was an artiste who was incapable of irony, it was Florence Foster Jenkins (1868-1944), an eccentric heiress who fooled herself into thinking she could sing.

In this serio-comic rendition of her bizarre domestic arrangements, we see Florence “perform” with the help of her longsuffering handmaid and personal pianist. Bathos, with its hilarious but poignant implications, with its warning against the delusions of self-aggrandisement, is the key note of the production – and, indeed, one that echoes across the Festival this year. 



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