The 10 hour drive killed me but I was as fresh-faced and excited as any festival-virgin. So I immediately set out from the crummy res I was staying in to find some stimulating Arts-themed conversation. The very first people I met at a student bar called Slipstreams were two coloured hipsters that proceeded to bombard me with pantheist inspired quotes and anecdotes of their latest acid trip. I made a tick in a strange mental box and started to enjoy myself. The first tentative venture had left me feeling satisfied that this festival was going to be exactly what I had expected. I was placing it in stark contrast to the KKNK, since the final ‘K’ in the acronym ‘KKNK’ has become relatively pointless; I’d be surprised if half of the brandy and coke-quaffing students who travel to Oudtshoorn annually are even aware of the plays and art exhibitions on show. The Arts Festival, although not a celebration of my mother-tongue, was supposed to be the artistic superior to the mess that is the KKNK.
Hence my surprise and disgust when I found myself drunk the next afternoon at 14h00, having wandered into the beer tent out of sheer habit, yet to see even a street performance. I was drinking and swapping stories with a gay couple; one a big 55 year old man named Kobus, the other a young, stylish black guy wearing almost transparent white hot pants. At least I could definitely say that I would never see them at the KKNK. At their urging I drunkenly stumbled to a hypnotism show which Hotpants had described as “absolutely hilarious”. Certainly not the most cultivated of performances but I was desperate to escape the all too familiar pattern I felt myself falling into. The hypnotism show proved to be a sobering fiasco and I resolved to plan the next five days to achieve cultural satisfaction. The main performances for that night were sold out though, so I fooled myself into continuing the party with the local students.
The next morning I realized that two nights had passed and I had yet to experience anything even bordering on culture. It felt more like I was practising for Oppikoppi. The town was emptier than I had thought it would be; the famous flea market was full of rip-off Gucci handbags and schwarma stalls, not home-made works of art or traditional produce. There were no performers in the streets, no massive crowds and no extravagance. If it wasn’t for the “11 days of awesome!” banners it would’ve been hard to tell that a festival was under way. The Arts were available only to those who went and actually looked for them. Something that I was not doing. Hungover and reluctant, I finally dragged myself to my first proper theatrical showcase: Mies Julie, now showing at the Baxter, an adaptation of a classic Strindberg novel set in (surprise surprise) post-Apartheid South Africa. It was claw-your-eyes out fucking godawful. As a start to the great turnaround of my trip it had successfully lowered my expectations for the other main stage productions and whilst not quite hitting that same abysmal low again, they consistently hovered around the bar.
Next on my list was The Cradle of Humankind, starring that legend of annoying performances, artist Steven Cohen and the 90-year old domestic worker that had raised him, Nomsa Dlamini. The programme described it as performance art cum physical theatre piece that expressed through movement and imagery themes such as (surprise surprise) race and apartheid. I will say this; it got a standing ovation. Maybe I missed something. But between the 3 second repeating clip of a black woman’s arsehole being torn out while Die Stem played in the background and the fabulously naked Cohen strapping a stuffed baboon with a gaping vagina onto his chest and shuffling around the stage in 30 cm high heels, pawing at the hole and moaning, I may have missed something important. I got the sense that the shock of leading a half senile black woman around the room while things like the aforementioned exploded into the audience’s retinas was really what Cohen wanted to create. But a highlight of the festival this was not.
Renowned watering holes like The Rat And Parrot and Friar Tuck’s lived up to their reputations. I had ceased to meet interesting folks with interesting tales. I was simply on the drunk-train again, fuelled by shots of Jagermeister and making stops at every drunk girl in sight, proceeding to the next one when shot down and bobbing to the same shit they play at the Assembly. The night devolved into typical 20-something revelry and for a few hours I really couldn’t be sure whose town I was in Graham’s or the Cape’s. I was reminded of the 800 km difference only when I finally tripped down the stairs of Prime and saw a Church from the 1800s sticking out above the rising line of light that was dawn. Unfortunately I was unable to wash the memory of Mies Julie and Cohen’s penis from my mind. The guilt ran deep. The Arts Festival was dangerously close to becoming the Kunstefees for me and it seemed, for most of the other people my age.
The last two days blurred into one another as in a desperate attempt at salvation, I rushed to as many of the Fringe performances I could. This wasn’t difficult to plan because the Festival was admittedly well-organized. Rushing from the one lacklustre performance to the next was tiring, but made the few gems I discovered all the more worthwhile. Like the one-man show by the name of Lord Hamlet, attended by a scant 30 people, of which I was easily the youngest by 25 years. Lord Hamlet is a man broken and slightly insane subsequent to a break-up, who plots to kill Jacob Zuma because of the (surprise surprise) shitty state of the country he so loves. The hook? He can only speak in lines and verses from Hamlet. Perhaps a bit gimmicky, but certainly better than the three main performances I attended. Fringe performances have the words “Donations welcome” emblazoned below their descriptions in the programme.
The art exhibitions I browsed during intervals in the marathon were perhaps not so bad. Retinal Shift, a collection of real security cam footage and shots of (surprise surprise) poverty on the streets of Jozi, was particularly eye-catching. The exhaustion and grief finally culminated in a new personal low when, in a moment of existential confusion coupled with a sudden realization that I was almost scheduled to return to the Cape, I willingly attended an Arno Carstens performance. Rapport described Carstens at a recent show in the Eastern Cape as sounding like “’n walvis wat kraam” (a whale giving birth), a line I felt was too accurate not to steal. Arno must have been harking back to the 90’s because he was quite sauced; his show was a fittingly embarassing end to my own disastrous attempt at cultural immersion.
Although I could probably blame my lack of overall cultural je ne sais quoi on the constant drinking and socialising. Did I miss the Arts? Did I subconsciously not want to see any of the culture? Or was there no Art at the National Arts Festival to begin with? There did seem to be an awful lot more of those KKNK type kids than there were gentlemanly sirs with opera glasses dangling from their pockets. Maybe I’m polarising the situation. A festival shouldn’t be so black and white (excuse the pun). To some extent it’s relative to the festival-goer. That being said, at some point a festival touting itself as The National Arts Festival should perhaps put the art, and not the booze, a bit more front and centre. Perhaps more art-enthusiasts than beer-experts would start attending once the trend of setting everything in either the 1900’s SA or post-1994 SA dies down, because seriously, that shit is getting tired. I don’t think Hotpants and Kobus much care for that pain being explored anymore.
I left feeling both cheated and ashamed. At least I know exactly what to expect from Oppikoppi.
*Illustration © Alastair Laird.