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Theatre Journal 52.2 (2000) 280-283
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25Th Anniversary Standard Bank National Arts Festival
25Th Anniversary Standard Bank National Arts Festival. Grahamstown, South Africa. 29 June-11 July 1999.
South Africa pulled out all the stops for the twenty-fifth anniversary Standard Bank National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year. The Festival, which ran for a full two weeks, was as jam-packed with theatrical and artistic offerings as it was professional, entertaining and thought-provoking. Events commenced with a ribbon-cutting ceremony by guest of honor and patron saint, Nelson Mandela, and despite the drastic and potentially disabling decline in the value of the rand in the year prior to the Festival, Standard Bank remained financially committed to the gathering and producers clearly stopped at nothing to showcase the best and brightest that South Africa has to offer the world of arts.
The theatrical line-up was a healthy balance between South African-based performances and international artists from Europe, the United States and other African countries. The most memorable of the international events was the awe-inspiring physical and sensory gymnastics of The Philippe Genty Company's Dedale from France, who pushed the bodies of the actors and the imaginations of the audience beyond thresholds of the imaginable. With musicals the most popular theatrical form of the Festival (The Junction Avenue Theatre Company's Love, Crime, Johannesburg standing out among them for its expert blend of political insight and superb talent), the range of South African theatrical options was exhilarating, including an opera based on the Odysseus myth, Il ritorno D'Ulisse, the latest collaboration of William Kentridge and The Handspring Puppet Company. Of course, the Festival would not have been complete without the outrageously satirical Pieter-Dirk Uys, whose repertoire included nights with five of his politically incorrect yet shrewdly acute commentators. Nor would the Festival fulfill a reconciliatory function without The Story I Am About To Tell, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation's artful and transformative dialogue between actors and real life survivors who testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Festival also recognized the contributions of South Africa's theatrical geniuses, with an impassioned homage to the memory of theatre legend Matsemela Manaka by students from the University of Durban-Westville, in Egoli, City of Gold, topping the list. And feminism was represented by humorous yet politically empowering excerpts from the Obie Award winning play, The Vagina Monologues, bravely performed by Lara [End Page 280] Bye to shocked, moved, and nervously giggling audiences.
However, certain performances deserve special mention. Johnny Cockroach, a play an hour too long and rough in places, nonetheless offered the most acute reading of the South African psyche in the post-election era. From the pen of poet-turned-playwright Breyten Breytenbach and the directorial vision of Martinus Basson came a linguistic and poetic journey through the inner dimensions of all those who have ever struggled for a claim on the land at the tip of Africa: the once-dominant Afrikaner here portrayed as the tragi-comic harlequin; the arrogant British colonial whose Boer War nightmares paralyze him; the newly-empowered Black minister, at once strong, entitled, misguided and corrupt; the revolutionary whose anger blinds her rationality; and the forgotten Khoi-San, who opens the play in his native clicks and whose words are never translated into English. Against a metaphorical framework of the millennium and the literal backdrop of fiberoptic stars and sickle moon in a vast African night sky, this memory play takes as its premise that the past is an open wound. A pool of once-black reflective oil, mirror-like, once-thick red blood, ferruginous, functioned center stage as the site of baptism, awakening, death and forgiveness. Breytenbach, South Africa's most famous exiled Afrikaner, proved his exquisite talent as a pulse-taker of the South African soul in this disturbing piece that for some audiences at the Festival was too non-traditional and challenging to sit through.
From the pen and vision...