NAF 2015: TEN FRINGE PRODUCTIONS NOT TO MISS

 Andrew Buckland in Tobacco, or the Harmfull Effects Thereof (Pic by Marius Janse van Rensburg)

Andrew Buckland in Tobacco, or the Harmfull Effects Thereof (Pic by Marius Janse van Rensburg)

This feature was first published in Cape Times on 2 July 2015.

Steyn du Toit

Any thespian will tell you that it is often the Fringe component of any given arts festival that also offers its most unexpected viewing delights. But with a free-for-all format when it comes to The National Arts Festival (NAF) in Grahamstown’s Fringe programme, it can be difficult picking the most bang for your buck.

Here are 10 picks, consisting of both past festival favourites and debuts, well worth sampling this year:

BLUE (Dance)

Celebrating their 20th year in Grahamstown, no trip to NAF is complete without seeing a production by the Cape Dance Company (CDC). Under the artistic direction of Debbie Turner and consisting of four pieces by three leading choreographers, Blue is recommended for both fans of the company’s signature neoclassical style, as well as for those interested in exploring contemporary dance trends. As a companion piece also don’t miss Jilted, performed by the Cape Academy of Performing Arts (a feeder training company for the CDC), and featuring dance, drama and song.

DETRITUS FOR ONE (Physical theatre)

Dancer and lecturer Alan Parker has been interested in the notion of the archive for a while now, with each new production or academic paper he puts out on the topic taking him deeper into the way we record and document theatre and live performance. In 2013’s Detritus I watched a group of dancers, under his direction, emphatically reenact a series of pieces that they had seen the previous year at NAF. This time around Parker will browse through his own mental archive, and the results should be very interesting to see.

KAFKA AND SON (Drama)

While Franz Kafka and existentialism are often referred to in the same sentence, it is the author’s knack for the surreal that I find myself more often drawn to. Adapted from Kafka’s Letter to His Father by Mark Cassidy (director) and Alon Nashman (actor), this was one of the most memorable productions of NAF for me last year. Nashman, who plays Kafka, delivers a deeply felt yet intellectual performance against a strong visual backdrop of long shadows, cages and black feathers.

PIET SE OPTELGOED (Physical theatre)

Liezl de Kock in Piet se Optelgoed (Pic by Jesse Kramer)
Liezl de Kock in Piet se Optelgoed (Pic by Jesse Kramer)

Living in, and on top of some kind of post-apocalyptic wasteland, the macabre antiheroine in Liezl de Kock’s Piet se Optelgoed has a very dark tale to tell. Rooted in mime and physical theatre, this visceral tale of adaptation, trauma and, ultimately, survival, was hands down the best production I saw during last year’s Cape Town Fringe Festival. De Kock (Crazy in Love) not only delivers an overwhelming performance, but the production’s final metaphorical scene has returned to haunt me often since first experiencing it.

RETURN OF THE ANCESTORS (Drama)

2014 was the year that the spirits of struggle icons Steve Biko and Neil Aggett first travelled from the afterlife in order to come see what the South Africa that they fought for looks like today. What they found back here, however, seemed to go against the very grain of what the ANC originally stood for. Poverty, corruption, greed, violence, xenophobia, distrust, consumerism and nepotism; the current situation literally saw them turn in their graves. Written by Mike van Graan and starring promising young actors Siya Sikawuti and Mandisi Sindo, their funny and sobering journey to the foot of Nkandla continues.

TOBACCO, AND THE HARMFUL EFFECTS THEREOF (Drama)

Seriously, what more reason do you need than Andrew Buckland and Sylvaine teaming up together for a play? Described as “an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s monologue, On the Harmful Effects of Tobacco, re-imagined, in cut-up technique, in collaboration with Franz Kafka, Edward Lear and Andre Breton, amongst others”, it is both an exercise in linguistics as well as in the poetry and movement of the human body. Don’t miss this opportunity to see why these two theatre makers are simply in a league of their own.

Wessel Pretorius in Undone (Pic by Louisa Feiter)
Wessel Pretorius in Undone (Pic by Louisa Feiter)

UNDONE (Drama)

You’ll struggle to find anyone who has seen it who isn’t raving about Wessel Pretorius’ Undone, and with good reason. Kicking off with a splendid rendition of CJ Langenhoven’s Liefdesonsin: ‘n wiegeliedjie, in this play his unnamed protagonist takes the viewer on a visually evocative mythological pilgrimage through transformation from boy to man. Religion, sexuality, self-discovery, theatre and poetry; it’s all part of this alluring production.

UNMUTE (Dance)

Choreographed by, and starring Andile Vellem alongside Nadine Mckenzie, Themba Mbuli and Zama Sonjica, UnMute is a physical piece in which disabled performers aim to overcome the limits of their own bodies. Simultaneously they also go about circumnavigating society’s perceptions of how they should be treated because of their condition. It’s a beautiful, athletic, fearless and captivating production where Vellem and his team physically achieve the impossible. It leaves the viewer to reflect on how patronising we often are as a society towards those with disabilities, instead of rather finding ways to supplement that which they are already more than capable of doing themselves.

VASLAV (Drama)

Presented in the form of a fragmented narrative, Vaslav revolves around Russian ballet dancer Vaslav Nijinsky’s 30-year battle with paranoid schizophrenia. Starring Godfrey Johnson as the artist often referred to as “The God of the Dance,” the script – by Johnson, Lara Bye and Karen Jeynes – was compiled from Nijinsky’s own diaries and journal entries. Against a backdrop of archive video footage, movement coordination by Fiona Du Plooy as well as period music played by Johnson on piano, what emerges is a portrait of a vastly gifted individual who continues to have an impact on our world nearly 100 years after he danced for the last time.

WE DIDN’T COME TO HELL FOR THE CROISSANTS (Poetry)

Subtitled Seven Deadly New Stories for Consenting Adults, there really isn’t anything you need to know about this production other than it’s made by the same people behind The Epicene Butcher and last year’s Amateur Hour! This time around Jemma Kahn has roped in some theatrical collaborators – including Louis Viljoen (The Pervert Laura), Nicholas Spagnoletti (London Road) and Tertius Kapp (Rooiland) – so the literary festivities should be all the merrier.

l NAF takes place from July 2 – July 12. For full show schedule and booking details, see www.nationalartsfestival.co.za and www.facebook.com/nationalartsfestival, or follow @artsfestival on Twitter.

Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com. 

NAF 2015: TEN FRINGE PRODUCTIONS NOT TO MISS

REVIEW: BLUE ORANGE

Andrew Buckland, Marty Kintu and Nicholas Pauling in Blue/Orange. (Photo: Rodger Bosch)
Andrew Buckland, Marty Kintu and Nicholas Pauling in Blue/Orange. (Photo: Rodger Bosch)

This review was first published in Sunday Independent on 22 February 2015.

BLUE/ORANGE. Directed by Clare Stopford, and starring Andrew Buckland, Marty Kintu and Nicholas Pauling. At the Baxter Golden Arrow Studio, Monday to Tuesday at 7pm, and Wednesday to Saturday at 8.15pm until March 14. STEYN DU TOIT reviews.

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind,” Ralph Ellison’s unnamed African-American narrator tells us at the start of The Invisible Man (1952).

He’s referring to what it is like living as a black man in the United States.

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.”

The young English black man at the centre of dramatist Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange appears to suffer from the same affliction as Ellison’s protagonist.

Described as bringing psychiatric theory and practice under scrutiny, this trenchant production walked away with the Evening Standard, London Critics’ Circle as well as the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2001. It makes its local debut under the direction of Clare Stopford (Green Man FlashingPurgatorio), who have opted to to retain the plot’s original UK setting.

Opening on his 28th and final day of being a patient at a London psychiatric hospital, we frequently see Christopher’s (Marty Kintu) well-being openly discussed by young registrar Bruce (Nicholas Pauling) and his supervisor, Robert (Andrew Buckland), as if the twenty-something weren’t sitting a few feet away watching them from behind a non-soundproof window.

Used as a pawn in their Darwinian struggle for institutional power, the script’s parallels to colonialism, evolution, racism and modern living become gradually clearer as we begin to realise that Christopher will most likely be released from the hospital in a worse condition than what he was in when he first arrived.

And that is saying a lot about a patient who was brought in following “an incident in a market square”, and claiming to simultaneously be the illegitimate sons of both Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and boxing great Muhammad Ali, as well as that oranges are, in fact, a blue-coloured fruit.

But what if the angry, teeth-kissing Christopher has suffered neither a brief psychotic episode, as per Robert, nor showing the early warning signs of schizophrenia, as Bruce seems convinced of?

What if, instead, his behaviour is simply the manifestation of how the doctors – and, by implication, today’s global Eurocentric society – respond to young men from his specific demographic background?

Through Patrick Curtis’s entirely reflective set design Stopford proceeds to distort the audience’s reflections before presenting it back to us. Caught between self-reflection and being critically-engaged with the ideas ping-poned across the stage, the result becomes a theatrical excursion in which each viewer will likely have a unique viewing experience.

“I am frequently asked why I haven’t adapted Blue/Orange from the English to the South African context where the diagnosis, prognosis and treatment of black mental patients are a large and relevant issue,” Stopford explains in a recent interview.

“Here, our racial past and present and our conflicted notions of cultural difference or sameness make the topic of black mental health diagnosis politically fraught. I thought it could be useful to look at the issue sideways, from a different angle, and not fully in the face.

“In this way we can perhaps think differently or freshly about the problem.This is what Joe Penhall’s hugely articulate play does for us in South Africa. It gives us an opportunity to think about our own problems while looking at someone else’s (in this case another country’s).”

The success of this sardonic, comical play ultimately relies on its cast. Lead by Andrew Buckland, not only does each actor deliver convincing and nuanced performances, but as an ensemble they successfully rise to the challenges presented by Penhall’s tightrope script.

There are few who could deliver a line such as, “Lick my anus!” with such skill that it comes out sounding like a Tony-winning monologue, than Buckland. Composed, calculating, ambitious and not ashamed to admit it, his Robert makes for riveting theatre.

A versatile, edgy young performer with an impressive CV that includes Death of a Colonialist and Amadeus, Pauling is another actor one can always bank on for your money’s worth. Where his character lacks in experience he aims to makes up with good intentions, although, as many of us can attest to, good intentions will eventually only get you so far in life.

Asking its viewer to consider what exactly the definitions of madness and sanity should be in 2015, Blue/Orange is highly recommended fare.

Steyn du Toit is a Cape Town-based freelance arts journalist. For any questions, please e-mail steyndutoit (at) gmail (dot) com. 

REVIEW: BLUE ORANGE