Story telling: Asem, starring Tinarie van Wyk Loots, is expected to be one of the highlights at Woordfees. Picture: HANS VAN DER MERWE
Story telling: Asem, starring Tinarie van Wyk Loots, is expected to be one of the highlights at Woordfees. Picture: HANS VAN DER MERWE

Over the past two decades the University of Stellenbosch Woordfees, which launches its 19th edition this week, has pivoted in several successful directions. It started as a literary festival on campus, but grew into a multidisciplinary event considered a highlight on SA’s national arts calendar.

Put together by acclaimed theatre maker and playwright Saartjie Botha, the programme includes far more than the demographics of the host town. Instead, it’s an annual effort to keep conversations and celebrations open on the important issues of race, language, culture and identity.

As a discipline that juggles everything — from sights, sounds and smells, to thrills, frights and epiphanies — theatre has always been a great cultural bridge builder. True to form, the 2018 Woordfees theatre component again sees several local and international English plays making their way to the stage in Afrikaans.

Set during the last days of the Second Anglo Boer War, African gothic queen Reza de Wet’s Asem is a prominent piece that first grabbed attention at festivals during 2017. Translated into Afrikaans by Marthinus Basson, who also directs the play, the production stars Antoinette Kellerman, Edwin van der Walt and Tinarie van Wyk Loots. Superior directing and acting, combined with an aesthetic that seeps into the skin, Asem will be one of the most profound experiences at the 2018 Woordfees.

Rob van Vuuren. Picture: SUPPLIED
Rob van Vuuren. Picture: SUPPLIED

Translated by Amy Jephta, BuiteLand — written by Neil Coppen and originally called NewFoundLand — incorporates Afrikaans, English and isiZulu, and is a success in concept and execution. Revolving around topics such as home, family, race, sexuality and death, this ensemble piece, with the stellar Jacques Bessenger and Kopano Maroga in the eye of the storm, delivers a solid story told through innovative techniques and choreography.

Several other local playwrights will see their work translated and performed, including Tara Notcutt’s Half Leeg, translated by Jephta and starring the effervescent Cintaine Schutte as a damsel in distress waiting in a bar; and Strooijonker, translated by its author-director, Louw Venter, and featuring De Klerk Oelofse.

Presented by the Mothertongue Project and set against an episode from the Indian epic The Mahabharata, Rehane Abrahams’s Womb of Fire interweaves personal narrative and contemporary realities with the lives of two women from the founding years of the Cape Colony.

Penned by celebrated author Tertius Kapp (Rooiland, Oorsee), Liewer is not a translation of British playwright Patrick Marber’s Closer, but an Afrikaans play inspired by it. Helmed by prominent stage and film director Jaco Bouwer (Samsa-masjien, Waterfront), it delves into issues of love, commitment and fidelity.

Many productions will be staged in their original English.

Set to be one of the sold-out plays is Sam Shepard’s Curse of the Starving Class, which debuts at the festival under the direction of Sylvaine Strike.

First debuted in 1978, the first-rate cast who will be playing Shepard’s Tate family includes Neil McCarthy, Rob van Vuuren, Roberto Pombo, Anthony Coleman and Inge Crafford-Lazarus.

Another festival debut set to shake up the status quo is Beloofde Land/Promised Land, a multidisciplinary music production featuring puppetry, animation and choral harmonies. The piece is an initiative between The Loft Puppet Company, the Abonwabisi Brothers and London-based director Oliver James Hymans. It tells the story of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea in 2015. An image of his small washed-up body made global headlines.

After delightfully terrorising English audiences for several years with The Pervert Laura, The Kingmakers and Champ, it is finally time for Stellenbosch audiences to experience the full force of Louis Viljoen.

Dangled was one of the most discussed plays of 2016’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, due to its themes of violence, perversion and stalking (the play is an adaption of Nikolai Gogol’s Diary of a Madman). It’s an extremely well-crafted piece of theatre for people who can stomach it, largely thanks to the formidable performance given by Van Vuuren.

Viljoen allows a carefree weekend to turn into a nightmare when a wedding party gets trapped in a haunted cabin on a wine farm in The Demon Bride. It is described as a horror comedy and is produced by The Fugard.

• The University of Stellenbosh Woordfees runs from March 2-11. For the full programme, or to book tickets, see Woordfees