National Arts Festival Executive Producer Ashraf Johaardien says this year’s programme demonstrates that South African theatre is thriving, despite the slings and arrows of the box office bottom line and other challenges

The nature of the play in performance is ephemeral, leaving no actual record of the event. The archival remains of a night at the theatre will perhaps amount to a playbill in an arts administrator’s filing cabinet or a faded programme in someone’s scrapbook.

There are those theatres and festivals that may well take photographs or video a performance, but these records are usually for internal recording purposes and rarely find their way into any central or accessible cultural archive, which could serve as a record of the range of theatrical activity in South Africa today. 

The fact that there are more than 30 plays on this year’s Main programme (accounting for more than 40% of the content) attests to the fact that theatre in South Africa is still very much alive despite the slings and arrows of the box office bottom line and attendant challenges. It is also worth noting that of these 30 plays, only five are not South African – and all of those five either feature South African creatives or are by South African creatives.

Theatre on the Main programme at this year’s National Arts Festival is made up of several components. At the core there is a selection of Curated Works, largely drawn from the annual open call for submissions. Leading this selection process is the Theatre Sub-committee of the Artistic Committee. Parallel to this, as Executive Producer, I am responsible for the Festival Selection of works that includes productions made possible by partners and sponsors as well as a selection of plays or initiatives necessary to complete the programme both for artistic as well as strategic reasons.

Arena theatre productions form part of the Main programme and showcase the work of previous winners of the Festival’s Standard Bank Ovation Awards. The Student Theatre portion of the programme is a platform for the universities and colleges of South Africa and the Fringe theatre line-up completes the overall theatre programme.

My top five picks for Theatre on the Main at #FEST44 are:

  • THE BORROW PIT by 2018 Standard Bank Young Artist, Jemma Kahn is a play about 20th Century Men told by a 21st Century Woman. Through the lens of kamishibai, an ancient Japanese storytelling medium, Kahn tells the story of Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, two of Britain’s most influential artists. Each had a muse who helped them on their way to prodigious fame but it did not end so well for the muses…
  • MONSIEUR IBRAHIM EN DIE BLOMME VAN DIE KORAN is presented by Kunste Onbeperk and is performed by the inimitable Dawid Minnaar with direction by Phillip Rademeyer. Set in the Jewish quarter of Paris in the 1960s, Moses (Momo) finds an unlikely friend in a lonely Muslim shop owner, Monsieur Ibrahim. When Momo’s father – an aggressive man who neglects his son – disappears and is found dead, Ibrahim takes him in and a moving story unfolds, showing how the most important lessons about life and death are learned when we least expect it.
  • GONE NATIVE: The Life and Times of Regina Brooks presented by Joburg City Theatres with music by Hugh Masekela and direction by Makhaola Ndebele. One of the most controversial figures of South African history; a woman who defied apartheid government laws and what was deemed a norm; a white woman who had several relationships with black men at a time where interracial relationships were deemed immoral.
  • THEATRE IN THE BACKYARD is a concept pioneered by Cape Town theatre director Mhlanguli George and is the outcome of a radical shift in focus from trying to get new works into standard theatres, to taking those works into people’s backyards. Each story that is devised is inspired by the unique traits of each backyard and what elements strike the creator as a story that insists on being told about and by the site.
  • THE INCIDENT by Swedish playwright Joakim Daun will be co-produced by UJ Arts & Culture as part of their all-new play development platform, STAGED, and is made possible with generous support from the Embassy of Sweden. Newcomer Elizabeth Zaza Muchemwa directs a group of theatre makers from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Sweden and US who are interested in telling untold stories and presenting performances that question mainstream norms in our society.

Photograph: Ashraf Johaardien by Jan Potgieter