Comparisons are invidious, but instructive. An ex-South African (to use that colloquialism peculiar to white South Africa meaning a highly qualified fellow with two passports who now lives in London) tells me our National Arts Festival is no different from the Edinburgh festival. Make that festivals – half a dozen separate simultaneously held events. The Scottish capital – their host –– is architecturally splendid and multitudinous, beautiful but unsurprising, built as it is on the discreet greed of the financial instrument – banks and insurance companies forming the bedrock. Started in 1947, to affirm the creative achievements of the human spirit after the near annihilation of meaning during World War II, this year marks the 60th annual celebration of the arts.
The festival first-timer notices similarities to the Grahamstown event: the desperate fringe artists swatting patrons with flyers; the stone university buildings; makeshift venues that recall a Gothic student digs’ life; and a High Street with a dirty great cathedral (theirs is dirtier); the seething crowds – though in SA we don’t usually get teams of drunk, middle-aged women stumbling home. It’s also wet. The height of Scotland’s summer is equivalent to the depths of our winter. Robert Louis Stevenson described Edinburgh’s climate as “meteorological purgatory”. Global warming seems to have slowed the Gulf Stream denying the country any future summers, instead scorching tinder-dry Europe. And like Grahamstown, the city is teeming with an outbreak of comedians.
There is no comparison in scale. There are more stand-ups at Edinburgh than there are fringe shows at Grahamstown. Over 300 comics and over 600 comedies. Bring back King James VI for he licensed comedians (and beggars) in the 16th century. With 2000 fringe acts and over 17 000 performers, Edinburgh is seven times the size of our National Arts Festival (NAF). The only absence this year appears to be that of American patrons, so complain some impresarios.
The problem is partly that the ever-growing number of shows has outstripped the audience. Like our National Arts Festival, the open fringe has no curatorship. However, and this is a concept the Grahamstown event should seriously consider, two reliable brands of quality have been established on the open fringe – the Assembly and the Pleasance. The Assembly banner, consisting of eight separate venues scattered throughout the city, hosts over 300 shows, itself producing 25 shows, two of which so favoured are South African: Michael Lessac’s Truth in Translation and Brett Bailey’s House of the Holy Afro.
This year, Assembly founder and CEO, William Burdett-Coutts, anticipates his first financial loss in seven years, but he’s taking it in his considerable stride. It happens in this business; no need to panic.
Without a financial guarantee, it seems insane for a South African artist to even attempt Edinburgh. The economics are as foreboding as those of our NAF, except in British Pounds ten times the stake at risk. Even if sold out, the show is lucky to break even. Innumerable shows find themselves playing to audiences of fewer than twenty. Most British artists really come hoping to be discovered for television and radio. After a workshopped Jerry Springer the Opera was picked up by the National Theatre and went on to a spectacular West End run Edinburgh is awash this year with new musicals – over one hundred! There’s Orgasm the Musical, Zombie Prom, two musicals about Tony Blair, as well as several other facile agitprop pieces going by such jingles as Jihad the Musical and Failed States.
On the Royal Mile, I bump into Stef Junker (of Stef’s Sidesplitting Hypnosis) parading in the cold drizzle wearing nothing but an exiguous speedo. “We’ve decided to bring you some sunshine from sunny Souf Efrica,” he shouts, exaggerating his accent and pressing a flyer on me.
There seems to be a rite of passage, peculiar to South African performers, perhaps a hangover from cultural cringe, who feel that to stage at Edinburgh is to graduate after they have ‘passed’ Grahamstown. And there were many gold stars awarded this year. All the proudly South African productions – Lucy Heavens and Sarah Jane Scott’s Eurafrica, the Cape Dance Company, the Grammy-winning Soweto Gospel Choir’s African Spirit, as well as Translation and Afro received much coveted and judiciously awarded four-star reviews. While an exhibition of William Kentridge’s prints has introduced this master artist to a new audience.
The print critics, because of the bewildering number of shows, are powerful here, though more by way of their recommendations that bring an audience, than by their ability to put people off. However, one pities those shows listed in the daily review paper under ‘Not Recommended’– surely their titles should have sufficed – Beckett in a Bucket, Songs About Vaginas, and Find Me a Primitive Man?
The LA production of Athol Fugard’s Exits and Entrances is being favourably received too, though marred by the appalling apery of Fugard’s accent by the young man playing the autobiographical character. I preferred our Jason Ralph, but overall this production is superior because director Stephen Sachs understands that it is a struggle of styles. Morlan Higgins as André Huguenet, flamboyant not flaming, manages the crucial transition, to be stripped of disguise and affectation, not “an actor puffed up on stage”, but “an ageing fat old gay ham”, the real man bursting through his artifice.
Truth in Translation kicked off in the headlines with Hugh Masekela declaring to The Times that the ANC had sold out the struggle and he felt he was no longer welcome to trumpet transformation. He is quoted as saying, “People fight for freedom and then they forget and oppress their own people.” As if to prove his point the following week The Scotsman ran a 36-point headline: “A bully, thief and drunk who jumped the transplant queue to ‘steal’ liver – meet Dr Beetroot, health minister”, accompanied by a suitably frightful picture of Tshabalala-Msimang.
Critics seem to agree with this newspaper’s assessment that Translation is aesthetically and structurally flawed, but the subject matter transcends its formal detractions. Extracts from Lessac’s Translation will be performed at the Fringe Awards ceremony.
South African artists have certainly made good at Edinburgh this year following in the footsteps of a history of quality productions at the festival by stalwart theatre practitioners such as Andrew Buckland, Mbongeni Ngema, David Kramer, Greg Coetzee, Paul Slabolepszy, Pieter-Dirk Uys and Nicholas Ellenbogen.