Curtains Downby Katie de Klee / Images by Bazil Raubach / 12.07.2013
There they sat; the whole world reduced to that one space and all that is outside shut off. One half in darkness, one half in light, and while life is happening for one half, progressing at strange speeds and in unusual ways, the other half is dreaming.
Many times at the National Arts Festival I found myself slipping into someone else’s imagination. Well-established artist on the main programme and the emerging young talents on the fringe filled the stages of Grahamstown with the figments of their minds. The music and the movement in As Night Falls teased us out of our own heads and into a peculiar world, Hanamichi charmed and Crazy in Love was both funny and moving. To name but a few… Undoubtedly South Africa’s biggest Arts Festival, unique on the continent and always a place where cultural trends and political opinions have manifested themselves. And a place where writers, actors and dancers bring their dreams.
The seats in the auditoriums are upright and plastic. I crossed and then uncrossed my legs, took off my jacket and crossed them again. The lady sitting in front turned her head to the side. She looked at her husband over the top of her glasses and slid her hand, palm facing me, down the back of her chair. Like a person who has lost a coin down the sofa she flexed her fingers and they brushed my shin. Then she grabbed my ankle, shook it, returned her hand to her lap and her eyes to the stage.
For a moment she woke me from my dream, but I had woken her first and enraged she had retaliated; like a sleeper next to a snorer. She was suffering from a mild stage rage: when a member of the audience finds another irritating, when they are woken from the fantasy against their will. It’s a common problem at the Festival. Someone tried to eat a packet of sweets behind me once, but this isn’t the movies. The slightest sniffing or coughing, rustling or chewing, when you’re enjoying a performance can be great a nuisance. But we’re all just animals in the stalls.
And talking of animals… In Three Little Pigs Rob van Vuuren, James Cairns and Albert Pretorius use the well known children’s story to make an amusing mockery of the corruption in the South African police service. They took on the characteristics and grunts of different animals to make their points. Pigs, vultures, chickens…
Sheep. Standing ovations are like Mexican waves, one person starts and the rest of us ripple to our feet, sometimes only because you hope you’ll get to the exit faster. It should be an impulsive movement, one you can’t help. Don’t give into peer pressure; a standing ovation is not obligatory.
Wool seems to sell the best in the Village Green. The craft stalls capitalising on the cold toes of those who came unprepared for the arctic temperatures of a Grahamstown winter. Mohair jumpers and woolly slippers and caramel roasted nuts.
During the week of the festival all are welcomed into the Albany Gentlemen’s Club, a smoky pub with low ceilings, a fireplace and rows of black and white photos of deceased former members. During the rest of the year you need to be a member, and they’ve only recently started accepting women as such.
Those who aren’t drinking there are probably at the Long Table Bar, also temporary, just for the festival. If you have space for both your drink and your elbows then you’re in the wrong place. The second and worst symptom of the arts festival (after stage rage) is FOMO. No matter how many shows you manage, you will never have time for them all, and you’ll hear many people tell you what you should have seen, but it will be too late for you to see it.
Then after a week of more theatre than you’ll see in an entire year, everything fades to echoes. Lines you were moved by, punchlines you can’t remember and the clapping grows quieter than the ticking of your watch as you sleep on your hands in the car on the way home.
Next year will be the NAF’s 40th. Who will take centre stage for the ruby anniversary?
* Images © Bazil Raubach