Theatre A measured balance

A measured balance

The National Arts Festival pretty much reflects the theatre scene as a whole. There is still not enough black theatre, and there are not enough black audience members. It’s largely a matter of economics but it’s also related to artistic will.

Nat Ramabulana and Janna Ramos Violante perform in The Imagined Land at Vicky’s, Grahamstown, 10 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. The Imagined Land is a new play by acclaimed writer Craig Higginson in which a famous Zimbabwean novelist, modelled on Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing, is confronted by her biographer with difficult memories from her past. Photo: CuePix / Jane Berg.

Nat Ramabulana and Janna Ramos Violante perform in The Imagined Land at Vicky’s, Grahamstown, 10 July 2015, at the 2015 National Arts Festival. The Imagined Land is a new play by acclaimed writer Craig Higginson in which a famous Zimbabwean novelist, modelled on Nadine Gordimer and Doris Lessing, is confronted by her biographer with difficult memories from her past. Photo: CuePix / Jane Berg.

We need, in 2015, to indulge in some serious reflection on where we are, and where we’re going. That said, there was some inspiring theatre on show this year. Everyone, as Festival CEO Tony Lankester is fond of telling us, experiences a different festival. The possibility of any two people (partners, etc. aside) attending the same productions over eleven (or fewer) days is unlikely.

Probably top of my personal list is Tony Miyambo’s sensitively written and performed autobiographical solo theatre piece, The Cenotaph of Dan wa Moriri, created by Miyambo and his director Gerard Bester, and written by William Harding. Deceptively simple staging involved building blocks, a square table as mini-stage, and unobtrusive lighting. Miyambo told his story with charm, humour, and pain.

An equally simply staged Miracle in Rwanda was also part of the Festival’s Solo Theatre season. In this faith-based story, US actor Leslie Lewis’s portrayal of Imaculée Ilibagiza, who survived the Rwandan genocide in 1994, was astonishingly convincing. This play too was co-created by the performer and her director (Edward Vilga). It made for an interesting comparison with Woman Alone, an effective antidote to any Saudi Arabian Tourism Authority pamphlets, which saw Lee-Ann van Rooi in top form as a disgracefully abused South African woman in a turbo-patriarchal society.

There’s still time to see Standard Bank Young Artist for Theatre 2015 Christiaan Olwagen’s exciting contemporary take on Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. As the desperate doll-wife, Jennifer Steyn delivers a performance that calls upon all her technique and emotional reserves. She is ably supported by a terrific cast. The language is South African; the acting is hyper-real, almost filmic, while the production is largely expressionistic.

I also admired Craig Higginson’s powerful collaboration with director Malcolm Purkey, The Imagined Land. After a stumble with their Little Foot production, they’re back with a ‘state of the nation’ play that rivals The Girl in the Yellow Dress, which, like this 2015 production, included Nat Ramabulana in the cast. Fiona Ramsay as a disintegrating writer and Jenna Ramos Violante as her daughter are excellent in this work, in which the personal becomes the universal.

The Pink Couch production Three Blind Mice is a fantastic follow-up to the hard-hitting Three Little Pigs. Once again Tara Notcutt (the busiest director at the Festival) directs Rob van Vuuren, Albert Pretorius, and James Cairns in a tough satire, with lots of laughs helping the medicine go down. Neil Coppen’s clever set suggests both prison cell and mousetrap, as this local political thriller asks: who killed the farmer? And is justice as blind as this criminal trio? Brilliant.

Talking of sequels, Jemma Kahn has finally forsaken her beloved Epicene Butcher and, using the same kamishibai illustrated storytelling technique, come up with We Didn’t Come to Hell for the Croissants, a raunchy, cheeky, kinky delight that promises cult status equal to that of its predecessor. Her sidekick Roberto Pombo is an outrage.

Rob Murray, fresh from seeriaas academia, directs the wonderfully inventive Waterline, in which water is the power, the currency of the future. Entertainment is never sacrificed for the message.

Thoko Ntshinga’s faithful production of Born in the RSA is very much of its time (1985) but has much resonance for us here and now. Ntshinga, who was in the original cast that created this conscience-searching drama with the late Barney Simon, directs a firstrate cast (including an injured Emily Child, who was forced to toyi toyi with a crutch!). It’s presently at the Baxter Theatre.

A beautiful Fringe production of the Simon-influenced Have you Seen Zandile? was equally relevant to us here and now.

Conscience and political consciousness are very much part of A Voice I Cannot Silence, featuring veteran actor Ralph Lawson’s uncannily accurate portrayal of Alan Paton, directed by co-creator Greg Homann. It’s a warm but never sentimental portrait of this gruff, complex man.

The Festival, a crucible of creativity, has once again provided us with firstclass theatre this year. Now, about that balancing act …

Nigel Vermaas
Cue contributing editor

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