Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

National Arts Festival 2017: Disruption all around us and still we haven’t learnt

Although the National Arts Festival is too gargantuan a terrain for a lone explorer to wrap his feet around, interpretations of this year’s theme of “disruption” abound whichever way one may turn.

Nadia Davids’s What Remains, a play directed by Jay Pather, fits neatly into the above theme, looking at a grim archaeological discovery as the site of a contest between “memory and history”.

What Remains first began as a possible novella, based loosely on the 2003 discovery of a gravesite at Prestwich Place in Cape Town. The site turned out to be one of the largest slave burial grounds to be unearthed in the southern hemisphere, having housed close to 3 000 bodies.

In her treatment of the story, Davids moves away from a specific setting, opting for a more generalised Cape Town, which in turn becomes a metaphor for where South Africa finds itself today. The characters in the play are archetypes with Faniswa Yisa playing the archaeologist, Denise Newman playing both the healer and the chairperson of a development consortium and Buhle Ngaba playing the student. Shaun Oelf, a dancer, provides a ghoulish presence symbolic of the uncovered bones.

As a production, What Remains is sleek, atmospheric and briskly paced. Much of the pacing has to do with Ngaba’s unrelenting energy as the student.

Ngaba’s role, which evolved from being a narrator, sees her as the connective tissue in the story. She spews out facts and hypotheses and analyses the unfolding drama as a witness to history unwilling to be contained by the sidelines.

Ngaba is a great conduit for the tension that drives Davids’ story. Newman too, by playing roles that represent polar opposites (a capitalist developer and the healer visited by the spirits of the dead), enhances the production’s kinetic drive.

It is perhaps all this brilliance at hand that gives the impression that What Remains functions more on an intellectual level than on an emotive one. I struggled with this feeling for hours, even speaking to Davids about the very idea of complicity, a thread brought up by Pather’s seating design, which sees audiences face each other as they watch the play.

“Isn’t this how ordinary people feel, on some level?” Davids said. “That we are watching things unfold and unravel before us and it’s hard to get a grip around them, to decide how one acts in different moments. What does one do? …All our positions involve complicity in different ways at different times.” Perhaps, this is the crux of the discomfort generated by What Remains.

Songs of mayhem and blood
To an enthusiastic, attentive crowd at the Thomas Pringle Hall on Saturday evening, the 2017 National Arts Festival featured artist Neo Muyanga shared an illuminating anecdote a few minutes into the set of Solid(T)Ary, his exploration of struggle histories through song.

The stage production crew, wanting to know what mood to evoke with the lights, asked him what the show was about. “I told them it was an intensely dark show about mayhem and murder but played as romance,” he said.

The crowd and Muyanga chuckled at this unison, for there was a collective understanding as to what Muyanga meant. All songs of struggle are, in fact, love songs. At points, it seemed that this was all Muyanga wanted to us to contemplate; that however disparate the means and however far apart the locales might be, all people struggle out of a deep sense of love, a love whose connections Muyanga exposed via a delicate originality, first on the piano and then standing, on the acoustic guitar.

There was a sense of the artist becoming the songs as he sang them; and a sense that these were compositions, yes, but each individual singer of this collective canon has, over the decades, made these songs new each time.

For instance, what does it mean for Muyanga to sing of Biko and Sisulu in the same breath as he mentions Umkhonto we Sizwe (“uBiko uthi ayihlome ihlasele.”) or to sing songs from the Himalaya Mountains with an undertow of Bhaca guitar playing? The most poignant question, however, came from the artist himself: “What does it mean that some of these songs are 5000 years old, and still we haven’t learnt anything?”

What Remains will show at the Hiddingh Hall in Gardens from July 6 to July 12.

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Fears of violence persist a year after the murder of...

The court battle to stop coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal has heightened the sense of danger among environmental activists

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

More top stories

Kenya’s beach boys fall into sex tourism, trafficking

In the face of their families’ poverty, young men, persuaded by the prospect of wealth or education, travel to Europe with their older female sponsors only to be trafficked for sex

High court reinstates Umgeni Water board

The high court has ruled that the dissolution of the water entity’s board by Minister Lindiwe Sisulu was unfair and unprocedural

Mkhize throws the book at the Special Investigating Unit

It’s a long shot at political redemption for the former health minister and, more pressingly, a bid to avert criminal charges
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×