The rural town of Smithfield has become a singular proving ground for major theatrical productions.
Smithfield is not the most obvious venue for the premiere of a major new work by one of the country’s foremost poet-playwrights. But the tiny platteland dorp in the southeast Free State is rapidly growing a name as a go-to spot for exactly that.
The town’s Platteland Preview, just three years old, provides shows heading for the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown with a chance to iron out their creases. Local people provide performers with free accommodation and venues. Audiences sit on cushions and chairs close to performers in the Red Barn while sheep nibble grass outside the other main venue, the historic Bell’s Chapel.
It started with one show; last year was a full-on weekend festival; this year it’s already too big to manage so Rouxville, the next small town along the N6, is helping to accommodate some of the performers.
For Smithfield, halfway between Gauteng and Grahamstown, the impact of an arts festival can be huge. Few local adults have ever experienced the live arts, some of which directly challenge their world view. Almost no child has ever seen live theatre, so pupils are invited to an appropriate show, after which they can chat with the cast afterwards. A new idea of life opens up.
A festival like this, brief as it is, also means piecework for the unemployed, an increase in income for struggling shops and bed-and-breakfasts – and a material reason for improving social cohesion.
And the networking has been amazing: a local teacher is attending the National Arts Festival this year as an official guest, her show tickets, board and lodging, skills development and mentoring all funded – what she will take back and share with her classes will be twofold.
Another example of the impact: professional musicians, due to play at this year’s festival, heard about despondent local music teachers who have no training in the subject. They have now arranged a weekend crash course to help them.
Confidence and polish
But these community benefits depend on performers benefiting from the chance of a run-through before opening in Grahamstown. It looks promising. There are several prizewinners who form part of the show offerings, including two Standard Bank Ovation Award winners picked up in Grahamstown a few days after the Preview, with performers saying afterwards that the Platteland festival helped by giving them confidence and polish.
Which brings us back to this year’s Platteland Preview opener: The Ballad of Dirk de Bruin, a full-length play in blank verse by Chris Mann, professor of poetry at Rhodes University. It will premiere in the Red Barn with De Bruin played by award-winning actor David Butler, who latter adds Dirk to his portfolio of plays about pugnacious, independent-minded Afrikaner outsiders Bram Fischer and Herman Charles Bosman.
Mann is not afraid of tackling controversy, as an earlier play-in-verse about a key event in Xhosa history shows. Though Xhosa royalty threatened a court interdict to halt the play, Mann persisted and Thuthula – Heart of the Labyrinth was performed to critical acclaim from, among others, those same royals.
In Ballad Mann again risks controversy. This time he explores what gives someone the strength of character to blow the whistle on corruption. What inner values prompt him to face the ordeal that inevitably follows exposure of wrongdoing?
Here’s an ordinary backveld farm boy, rescued from a life headed for the gutter. Yet, when he finds malpractice in the organisation that rescued him, he doesn’t hesitate. De Bruin blows the whistle on the very church that gave him a home from despair – acting as a possible role model for other South Africans witnessing corruption in public life.
Mann based the play on stories in the public domain. One involves a church elder who challenged the leader of a prosperity church over property deals involving church money and the leader’s extravagant church-financed lifestyle. The elder put his job and salary on the line, knowing full well that at his age he would not find another job.
“There’s a tradition of spiritual dissidence among Afrikaners,” says Mann. “We can explore it through De Bruin’s story. Dirk is part of that tradition of rebellious courage.”
Carmel Rickard is one of the organisers of the Platteland Preview. See smithfield.co.za
The festival is partly funded by the Arts and Culture Trust