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Sunday, April 5, 2009


(Clare Mortimer appears as Vivian Bearing in “Wit”)

KickstArt’s “Wit” is included in the National Arts Festival main programme.

Two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays from the US look set to become the talk of the forthcoming National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Both have powerful scripts that read as literature on the page.

Margaret Edson’s Wit is presented by Durban KickstArt theatre company, directed by Steven Stead and starring multi-award-winning actress, Clare Mortimer with Alison Cassels and Ralph Lawson. Described by The New York Times as an experience "of which legends are made”, Wit is as moving as it is dazzlingly clever, with a brilliant, highly articulate central character finding peace through life’s greatest challenge. Margaret Edson will be at the festival by courtesy of the US Embassy.

Presented by the Baxter Theatre, Doug Wright’s I am my own Wife (South African Première) is directed by Janice Honeyman with Jeremy Crutchley playing 40 different characters including the protagonist, Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. A German transvestite caught up in the great European dramas of the 20th century, Charlotte had in many ways become the history he/she had lived through. Coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the staging of this play is so much more pertinent.

Six theatre premières mean that once again, Festival audiences can boast, “I saw it first in Grahamstown!” Diligently working her way up from community performance spaces, Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner Ntshieng Mokgoro claims her own pitch in the A-team of South African theatre-makers. In The Olive Tree (première), she uses story, image, poetry and song to tell a tale of rebirth in a tapestry of ritual and culture.

Premières from established theatre makers Mike van Graan and Nigel Vermaas also feature on the programme. Jazz-lover Vermaas has fictionalised the mutually liberating relationship between an iconic jazz star and her prison warden in Do you know Billie Holiday? (première). The singer unlocks the gaoler’s innate creativity, and, in her turn, is helped to fight off predatory agents and promoters. Festival firecracker Mike van Graan always comes up with something new, insightful and provocative. His Iago’s Last Dance (première) is a trio of playlets that dissect issues round HIV/AIDS.

Set in Langa (Western Cape) The Return, by veteran playwright Fatima Dike, dramatises the tension between two generations and the problems of reconciling differences when a black South African comes home with his African-American wife after 18 years in the Diaspora. Directed by Roy Sargeant, this Artscape production features Nomhle Nkonyeni with Mzwakhe Mdidimba, Astara Mwakalumbwa and Phakamisa Zwedala.

The one-hander, Something Dark, sees poet Lemn Sissay (directed by John McGrath) in a mesmerising personal disclosure. Born in the UK, he was rejected by his foster parents and given into state care, eventually travelling to Gambia to discover his mother and the awful circumstances of his conception. At the end of this extraordinary monologue, the audience steps with him from the shadows of pain into the light of new life.

Three of the works on the Festival’s Main Theatre Programme are adapted from the world’s library of prose. Sunday Times columnist Fred Khumalo’s novel ,Touch my Blood (première), has been transformed into this Market Theatre production by James Ngcobo. “Touch my blood” was a greeting used by those stylish gangsters, “The Dudes”, and the action is fast-paced, witty and deeply moving.

The writings of Booker Prize winner Ben Okri inspired the Fresco Theatre Company and director Helen Iskander to create The Famished Road (première), a magical-realist story of love and sacrifice seen through the eyes of a spirit-child.

Samuel Beckett's darkly poignant post-war novella First Love is brought to the Festival stage by Irish Beckett specialists, the Gare St Lazare Players. Performer Conor Lovett enjoys an international reputation as the author’s greatest living interpreter.

In a special new comedy slot, Jimeoin on Ice features the nonpareil of stand-up funny-men whose shows sell out around the globe. “A genius not to be missed”, according to the UK’s Mail on Sunday. With Dave Levinsohn as the support act this is the antidote we need against life’s vicissitudes.

Another series of pick-me-ups awaits audiences at The Studio, a venue dedicated to emerging East Cape talents. No matter how dramatic the tales that unfold on this stage, they can be relied on to pound with rhythm and pulsate with song, affirming the essential optimism that the arts keep aflame.

Vumelani – Let us dance together, directed by the renowned Tina Piek, showcases the talents of the Via Paterson Art Club, the Manyandube Dance Group and the Mvanda Dance Group.

Fire Theatre’s Meneer is a workshopped satire on the absurdities of bureaucracy, while Matt Productions visits the shebeen scene in The Maxim.

Tracking a young dancer’s journey from a small Eastern Cape town to the bright lights of Jozi, The Road to Success features exciting Pantsula dance sequences. The show is directed by Brink Scholtz and Ayanda Nondlwana.

The free Street Theatre programme is very strong on spectacle this year. The family of giant puppets from Orange Farm’s South African Great Ubuntu Recycled Universal’s African Puppet Family will enact stories and parade the streets. uBaba and uMama are four metres tall and the three youngsters aren’t midgets, either. Wearing towering surrealist coifs and extravagant costumes, Spain’s notorious hair artists, Osadia, will set up an outdoor salon and re-invent audience members with backcombing, colour sprays and glitzy cosmetics.

The Student Theatre Festival includes work from 11 tertiary institutions: The University of Pretoria, City Varsity (Cape Town), Rhodes University, the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Stellenbosch, the University of Cape Town, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg), the University of the Free State, the Durban University of Technology, the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Howard College). The works diverge broadly, but a strong preoccupation with story runs through them. Workshopping is back in force as a preferred modus operandi and this year, only two of the student groups have based their work (with radical freedom) on an existing text. If student work is a GPS into the future, the traffic lights are all green (and working) for South African theatre.

And to ensure audiences are spoiled for choice a fuller theatre programme is supplemented by the Fringe.

The National Arts Festival is sponsored by Standard Bank, The Eastern Cape Government, The National Arts Council, The National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund and The Sunday Independent and runs from July 2 to 11, 2009, in Grahamstown. For more information visit