National Arts Festival update

WORDS: Remy Raitt   PHOTOS: Sarah Schäfer

A secret but frequently indulged pleasure at the Grahamstown Arts Festival is people-watching, and listening in on conversations just before the lights dim and a show begins. Everyone does it, and most will agree that it’s one of the easiest ways to find out which shows are, well, worth talking about. 

Brett Bailey’s exhibition ‘Exhibit A’ is a show that was paid much lip service around town. The human zoo installation really moved people, as they entered the show one at a time to gawk at real human specimens. The artist calls the show an “ethnographic spectacle” and strongly references colonial Europe’s turn-of-the-century exhibitions of African slaves. But the specimens on show, playing Pygmy, Nama and Congolese slaves are not passively victimised as you might expect, and it is in fact the viewer who falls under the gaze of those on display, making the whole experience an uncomfortable one that probes racist atrocities of the past. The show has now ended, and if you missed it, you missed out.

Sold-out shows of the theatre piece ‘London Road’ moved a full house to tears on Monday. Debuting at Festival in 2010, this emotionally charged story zooms in on two women who form an unlikely friendship within the perimeters of a Sea Point flat block on London Road. Richly funny with moments of soul sapping emotion, the actresses were so convincing that I doubt too many people left the show without having to wipe away a tear or two before the lights came back on.

As emotional but on a far more abstract level was the physical theatre piece by Nicola Elliot, ‘Fragile’. Using simple props and engaging non-literal choreographic portraits the four performers evoked and recalled emotional boundaries that the audience was left to decipher. Confusingly beautiful, ‘Fragile’ is intrinsically complex and long after the show it resonates within the individual viewer uniquely, making the experience a personal one. 

Yael Farber, another acclaimed South African director, explored issues of race and power play in her adaption of Strindberg’s classic ‘Mies Julie’. Taking place in a farmhouse kitchen in the Karoo, a single night unfolds exposing the frayed ties of a white farmer’s daughter (Mies Julie), a young black farm labourer (John) and his mother, who raised them both. The visceral struggles of contemporary South Africa are laid bare in this domestic setting, as John and Mies Julie spiral one night, in a deadly battle over power, sexuality, memory, mothers and land.

 Another one that was widely anticipated and thoroughly enjoyed by those who have attended is the dance piece by French choreographers Mathilde Monnier and Jean-Francois Duroure, ‘Pudique Acide/Extasis’. This energetic and masterfully performed staging is a new take on the choreographers’ first two joint productions. The two dancers were spectacular, the costumes clever and effective and the audio choices revealing. Although wordless, the show finds a way to communicate through movement, a hint of comedy and palpable energy.

Overhearing other Festivalgoers for the last few days has sparked a deep anticipation for Steven Cohen’s ‘Cradle of Humankind’, Athol Fugard’s ‘The Blue Iris’ and a solo performance by the ever-enthralling Chris Chameleon. With the first half of the Festival already seeing 120 sold-out performances, the crowds this year are arriving early for these and other heralded shows. We’ll let you know what all the fuss has been about on Friday. Until then follow us on Twitter.