M&G: Exchanging one sorrow for another


Exchanging one sorrow for another

At some point Grahamstown turns into a pumpkin — even during the National Arts Festival that runs here until July 11 and adds an air of cultured cosmopolitanism to a town otherwise populated by the unemployed, frontier farmers and the extremes of academia (a range encompassing vegan enviro-fascists all the way through to drunken “philosophers” who study commerce, it would appear).

For the brave souls searching for Dyonisian excess — or merely counting on liquor being the best defence against the biting cold — that time usually arrives at around 2am in the morning when the bars and pubs start shutting down.

The Monastry, down a side-alley on New Street was open until 6am, the friendly staff at the Albany Club on High Street advised at last rounds on Saturday night. Only problem was, they’d run out of anything decent to sluk at the Monastry: “We have semi-sweet boxed wine, Castle Lager quarts and cane,” said the barmen over the din of cheap Pop 40 tunes. “Erm, no abbey beers, then?”

The limited choices rendered drinking further a prospect slightly more appealing than de-bollocking oneself with a blunt spoon while watching The Battle of Algiers (Incidentally, Gillo Pontecorvo’s incendiary masterpiece screens at ThinkFest! on July 9 as part of the Frantz Fanon series at the festival).

With an early Sunday morning deadline swiftly approaching, the electric blanket was having a come-hither whisper in the ear.

But the frontline of journalism is a dangerous trench, where putting one’s health and sobriety on the line is an occupational hazard: The cast of Abnormal Loads (written and directed by 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist for Drama Neil Coppen) had completed their festival run and were cutting loose.

Having sat in on rehearsals and interviewed Coppen, it felt imperative that a first-hand account of the experiences on the stage — over what later appeared a case of wine — was an imperative.

So, to the Long Table, a quasi-egalitarian space (diners sit at long trestle tables, rubbing shoulders and reviews of the shows they’ve seen with strangers, but the food is overpriced and microwaved up) that stays open until about 4.30am.

With the pressure off, and some of the 12-person cast heading out of Grahamstown the next morning, there was a lot of love in the air. They are a fun, really nice bunch of people and there is gushing over the “egoless” experience and more than one of the actors suggest that working on Abnormal Loads has led to real growth — both professional and personal.

Mothusi Magona (Tsotsi, The Lab) and Junna Dunster (Isidingo), the leads of this visually epic dramatic comedy, discussed the challenges of moving from the screen on to the stage. Neither have done much theatre (Magona mainly as a student at Wits University), which “requires greater interiority” as opposed to the large presence one needs on stage.

The latter is much harder for Magona, who is similar to the meek, mild-mannered character, Vincent he plays in Abnormal Loads. “I don’t get out much,” he says apologetically, often.

But they’ve obviously scored kudos with the audience: Two girls come over and animatedly discuss the play’s ending with the cast — one of them admits to leading the standing ovation during their final show.

But the National Arts Festival is obviously more than drunken nocturnal conversations about art that you loved or loathed.

Retired Constitutional Court judge Albie Sachs delivered a gracious and insightful talk entitled Challenging Questions — Have the Beautyful People Been Born — a play on Ghanaian writer Ai Kwe Armah’s critique of post-colonial corruption in the novel, The Beautyful Ones are not Yet Born.

Sachs, who felt that the South African Constitution “recognises both the possibility and the fallibility of humanity”, flagged corruption, sexual predation and unemployment as post-apartheid South Africa’s main challenges.

He also took the audience into the nuanced contestations between progressive, humanistic elements within the ruling ANC and the more regressive emergent tendencies. These are ongoing, he assured the audience.

Journalist Denis Beckett followed Sachs as one of ThinkFest!’s Free Thinking Speakers. His talk, entitled Muammar, Hosni, Laurent and the End of Democracy as We Know It was mildly unconvincing.

Beckett essentially suggested that the historical trajectory of power meant it was being increasingly devolved away from the elite and towards the majority. That democracy was at stage two — where one is the lowest and stage 10 the ideal articulation of democracy — and that stage two was the first “without guns or knives”, but rather a revolution happening in the minds.

This was difficult to buy when stage two democracy in South Africa is characterised by increasing state violence against dissident voices as evidenced by the murder of Andries Tatane in Ficksburg, the attempted evisceration, allegedly by elements connected to the local ANC, of the Abahlali baseMjondolo shack dwellers movement at Kennedy Road shack settlement in 2009, et cetera.

Abahlali’s mobilisation in Kennedy Road and other shack settlements had shades of a new Swiss Canton-style democracy that Beckett appeared to be advocating: that those, portioned off into smaller communities, most affected by decisions, would have the most say in those decisions.

Away from the matters relating to South Africa’s beguiling, contradictory constitutional democracy, one was reminded of Jacques Rancière’s observation that “the important thing is the possibility to exchange one sorrow for another, and in a sense the pleasure in literature and culture is the ability to exchange one sorrow for another sorrow”, at the jazz gig showcasing English saxophonist Soweto Kinch and Standard Bank Young Jazz Artist for 2011, pianist Bokani Dyer.

The set moved from critiques of war to the sheer pleasure of sound leaving Rancière, Sachs and Abnormal Loads to echo into the frigid night.