NAF 2014’s riveting theatre line-up comes to Jo’burg

One of the long-standing triumphs of the National Arts Festival (NAF) is that it is the pre-eminent window through which we can view what is happening in the country’s cultural, social and political spheres.

This year history, heritage, legacies, innovation and new voices were celebrated during the festival, which ended this weekend past. Some works exceeded expectations, others … not so much.

Still, the line-up speaks to the quality and depth of the works the festival is known to curate. And Jo’burg audiences can look forward to getting a small taste of what they missed at this year’s festival.

Paul Grootboom has brought us riveting work, artistically and intellectually. But his new play Protest disappointed, unfortunately, with a seemingly unready performance.

By experimenting with music he was attempting to serve something different to his audiences. The play is described as “a drama with music”, so it is not a musical, as such, but the music is used to articulate an idea or elevate the action with Tshepo Mngoma as musical director.

Tweaking and fixing
“I wanted to tell a didactic story as some of my ideas had been misinterpreted in previous work,” he said. “I also wanted to create something different that is the same – creating community theatre that is palatable.”

Plagued by technical faults and some actors stumbling through their lines, it was obvious not enough time had been spent on the production.

The story, as the title suggests, focuses on service delivery protests within voiceless communities. Because Grootboom never stops working on a production, continually tweaking and fixing during a run, there’s hope that Gauteng audiences will see a better version than what was put on in Grahamstown. Protest is on at the State Theatre from July 18 until August 10.

What’s cooking?
Gauteng audiences can also look forward to the Princess Zinzi Mhlongo-directed Cooking with Elisa, with a show-stealing performance by Patricia Boyer. The Argentinian play by Lucia Laragione is the first of the Proyecto 34°S Theatre in Translation programme, translated from the original Cocinando con Elisa, with an all South African cast.

It’s a gory and delectable piece of theatre where a butcher’s knife is handled in an operatic style. The story looks at culinary bullying through the power struggle between a domineering cook and a naïve young country girl in a kitchen specialising in French delicacies.

It runs at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square at the Nelson Mandela Square from July 22 to August 2 as part of the Argentinian Cultural Week.

The theme that stood out at this year’s festival was that of medical ethics and exploitation of the body, where theatre meets science, evident in plays such as the University of Oklahoma’s Miss Evers’ Boys (Silver Ovation Award Winner for Theatre) by David Feldshuh and Scottish actress, Adura Onashile’s one woman play, HeLa.

Other productions
The latter is based on the true life story of Henrietta Lacks and her HeLa cell line. Diagnosed with cancer, a cell sample was taken without her permission and used as the raw material for some of the most important scientific discoveries of the past 100 years. The book that inspired the play, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, is currently being adapted into film by Oprah Winfrey.

Locally this subject matter has been tackled through the infamous story of Saartjie Baartman, who was part of a human freak show of 19th century Europe under the name Hottentot Venus.

When she died her body was dissected and displayed in glass jars at the Museum of Man in Paris. Nelisiwe Xaba and Napo Masheane have previously dealt with the Baartman text.

It now resurfaces with a unique collaboration of Standard Bank Young Artists in the must-see production, Cargo: Precious.

Conceptualised and directed by Sylvaine Strike (2006 winner for theatre); choreographed by PJ Sabbagha (2005 winner for dance); scored by Concord Nkabinde (2006 winner for Jazz) and performed by Fana Tshabalala (2013 winner for dance) with Daniel Buckland and Nosiphiwe Samente, it’s on at the Market Theatre on September 6 and 7 as part of Dance Umbrella running from August 31 to September 7.

The 969 festival
From the Fringe programme, Whistle Stop, written by Ameera Patel, directed by Frances Slabolepszy and featuring Patel and real-life partner, Jacques de Silva, came up tops winning a Silver Ovation Award for Theatre. Patel was also part of a trio that won the Pansa New Writers Award, introduced this year to stimulate new writing in the Fringe.

Her play, a quirky blend of drama and physical theatre, looks at “hooking up” with a fresh, funny and poetic script.

The UCT theatre and performance graduate has come a long way since her days as part of the Rite 2 Speak Poetry collective. She is definitely one to watch.

Catch Whistle Stop and a number of other productions from NAF 2014 at the 969 Festival running at the Wits Theatre until July 27.

It was, in all, a great 11 days of the National Arts Festival. But as the second largest festival in the world, it could do with an inclusion of productions and artists from the continent, who were not visible this year. The 41st edition takes place from July 2 to July 12 in 2015.

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