As a nation, South Africa has long overcome cultural cringe and the need to emulate Anglo-America for artistic validation. We do however still tend to look to overseas for accreditation.
Not unlike the misunderstood and marginalised village artist seeking city fame, we notoriously ignore native talents until they receive global praise.
Accumulating foreign kudos to gain national recognition is, of course, not unique to us.
For the first time in its 52-year history, the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC), a body that embraces members from more than 60 countries, was officially represented in South Africa at the National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown.
The invited critics were chosen from countries with which we have weak historical links. The idea was not to see how our performing arts measure up, but to gain fresh, diverse perspectives and hold creative discussions about the works at the festival and the role of theatre criticism.
During the course of a week in which the critics saw all the main festival dramas and half a dozen fringe performances, Yun-Cheol Kim, President of the IATC and professor of drama at the Korean National University of the Arts, found most of the shows to be simply staged, even naïve. He was moved by the integrity and sincerity of the performers. Violence, and especially the stark depictions of rape, was a disturbing theme.
Matti Linnavuori from the Finnish Critics Association was also struck by how many plays dealt, in some way, with young girls finding themselves forced to assume adult responsibilities. He observed that women theatre practitioners were concerned with social issues, while male directors were preoccupied with conceptual work.
Tiago Bartholomeu Costa, editor of Portugal’s Obscena performing arts magazine and a voting member for the European Union’s prize for New Theatrical Realities, said he had never seen so many political plays in such a concentrated space. He particularly praised black women performers, finding in them a depth of emotion and a strength of portrayal that is quite uncommon.
He noted how the experience of seeing a South African play with a South African audience was quite different.
Costa said that some of the best performances he has seen in the past year in Europe were by South Africans, such as Steven Cohen, Nelisiwe Xaba and Robyn Orlin. He had been hoping for more works of this calibre.
The only performances which the critics unanimously praised at this year’s festival were Ten Bush and Batracien, l’après-midi. There was however praise for John Allen and the First Physical Theatre Company’s Ozymandias.
The IATC had hoped to establish the first national section in Africa at this year’s festival.
Brent Meersman is the South African representative of the IATC and coordinated the IATC symposium. Critics who wish to join can obtain more information by emailing him on firstname.lastname@example.org