Acclaimed theatre director and actor Sylvaine Strike is the featured artist at this year’s National Festival of the Arts in Grahamstown, which marks its 40th anniversary.
In place for the second year running, the position is offered to an artist who is “prolifically producing work”, says Strike.
There is also a significant focus on interdisciplinary and collaborative work and Strike has certainly ticked those boxes.
Grahamstown will be host to five of Strike’s productions, with three appearing on the main programme ( Cargo: Precious, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco and Black and Blue), and two on the fringe (Agreed and The God Complex). All are directed by Strike except Black and Blue, which is directed by James Cunningham – a retrospective, 10-year-old piece.
“I was asked to return Black and Blue to the festival as a homage to how my work started. It made a massive impact on the fringe when it was created [in 2004]. It was a firm favourite and launched my signature and me as an artist,” says Strike.
Black and Blue sees her perform for the first time on stage in seven years alongside Atandwa Kani, the 2013 Naledi Award winner for best South African script.
According to Strike, this amusingly bleak piece is viewed as “an epitome of democracy and moving on”. It was never intended as a political play, but it’s always been perceived as one.
“It seems like a very naive piece of work,” says Strike, “but it still holds its ground really well. In terms of our democracy it had a really strong voice then, and the challenge is to keep the story and make that voice even stronger.”
Another notable production is the dance piece Cargo: Precious, dealing with Saartjie Baartman’s three-month ship journey from Cape Town to the United Kingdom.
Fallen in love
In theatre circles, it’s tipped to be a talking point at the festival. “[Baartman] is a symbol of African female sexuality, for all to see and all to touch. I’ve been researching her for the past seven years; I’ve become very close to her narrative and I’ve kind of fallen in love with it. I’ve chosen not to tell the story that everyone knows, and I’m rather going into historical fiction.
“It’s an untold story – we only know that she was loaded as cargo … what happened on that ship is up to anyone’s imagination, but I like to think that it was a hopeful journey for her. I have an amazing team of dancers … [and I’m] not portraying Baartman as a victim.”
Cargo: Precious will feature PJ Sabbagha as the choreographer and Fana Tshabalala, William Harding and Daniel Buckland as some of the performers.
Strike’s third main programme production is On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, a one-man show featuring Andrew Buckland with Toni Morkel making a guest appearance.
Written by William Harding, it’s about a man who is forced by his wife to give an anti-smoking lecture, but who proceeds to unravel completely in front of his audience. “It’s direly funny and beautiful,” says Strike.
The fringe production Agreed, starring Lionel Newton and Kutlwano Masote, finished a run at the Market Theatre in February. It contains three monologues about greed.
“It’s a duet between an actor and cellist,” says Strike. “It’s about deals being made and broken and [is] relevant to society at the moment and for all time. It’s a film score to a piece of dramatic work – it’s very unusual to see a musician and an actor talking.”
The other fringe production, The God Complex, has been developed with Daniel Buckland and deals with the premise that there’s always someone above us, along with a “narrative of entrapment”.
“Daniel has come back from spending three years with Cirque du Soleil. He learnt a skill with a giant hula hoop where he fully stands inside it and whirls himself about,” Strike says.
“Together we developed the concept about someone who was trapped in this disc, talking to a god figure, trying to escape.”
The 2014 National Festival of the Arts will be held in Grahamstown from July 3 to 13. Bookings open on May 9 and can be made online through nationalartsfestival.co.za