Culture boffins head for the hills

Popcorn, Crashing the Night and Glass Roots started off as the quickest sellers for this weekend’s Hilton Arts Festival but people have been snapping up tickets since for an almost bewildering range of other shows and special events.

Last week booking for shows on the main programme averaged 80% and several shows on the main and the fringe programme were sold out. So much for drama being dead in KwaZulu-Natal.

This is the eighth annual Hilton festival. Thousands more people have been rolling up year after year to enjoy it, many from Gauteng.
Not bad for a festival that was dreamt up in a jail - the Old Gaol in Grahamstown actually, which was turned into a smoky restaurant for the National Arts Festival in 1993.

Hilton Theatre manager Geoff Thompson and Durban impresario Sue Clarence, who had the idea, didn’t realise what they were letting themselves in for.

This year there are nine shows on the main programme and 24 on the fringe. There are art exhibitions, a huge craft fair, a book fair and anEextended food tent with dishes and drinks from around the world. There’s a sit-down cabaret venue and, for the first time, a lecture series (called Spring Awakening) along the lines of the Grahamstown festival’s “winter-school”.

One lecture that was quickly booked is about Shaka Zulu. Was he a monster or is white mythology a lie? Someone else is talking about bats; there’s a lecture about Rider Haggard, some poetry and more. Most shows on the main programme are in the Hilton Theatre in the grounds of Hilton College, about an hour up the hill from Durban. Hilton might be rural, but the

theatre is the second-biggest in the whole province. Thanks to money generated by past festivals it now has a new state-of-the-art lighting system.

The “flagship” sponsored production this year is Glass Roots, a highly topical, controversial, often very funny production deliberately close to the racial bone. Popcorn is a highly successful pop piece featuring a bewildered cinema director caught in a real-life version of one of his own sick-fliks, at once funny, wry and weird, and Crashing the Night is a Paul Slabolepszy piece (with the author in the cast), often hilarious but a dark comedy.

Clarence (joint festival director with Thompson) likes classical ballet “with tutus”. So, also on the main programme are excerpts from classical ballets by the Fantastic Flying Fish Company, called Hooked?

There’s Not the Midnight Mass, another musical piece called Who Stole the Orchestra? (scripted by Ian von Memerty, featuring the astonishing bass-to-soprano Rory Rootenberg), War Cry, by award-winner John van de Ruit, Talking Heads, which features Fiona Ramsay and Graham Hopkins, and a tender but also violent love story called Skin Tight.

The rollicking fringe programme is not like the fringe programmes at many other festivals: it’s very exclusive. Anybody can apply, but the festival directors set the standard and choose who gets in. The result is there’s a scramble.

The range is purposely wide: from a Festival Sung Mass (free), a performance by the Kearsney College Olympic Choir and Picnic Piano (by Christopher Duigan, who plays Mozart and other classics, including Scott Joplin) to Breasts: A Play About Men by Greig Coetzee (he’s just won two top awardsEat the Edinburgh Festival), The Loser by Aaron McIlroy (a one-man musical comedy about a motivational speaker who needs help) and a strange piece that seems to involve being captured by aliens who can’t figure out how to work an electric toaster.

There’s also a play about an actor who is great at playing death scenes - but then he has to face the real thing himself. It’s called Sic.

Programmes and booking kits are at selected Spar branches and all Super-Spars in KwaZulu-Natal, or call Doreen on Tel: (033) 343 0126.

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