Bring it on: The comedy-drama ‘Toutjies & Ferreira’ by Woordfees director and playwright Saartjie Botha provides a glimpse into the chaos that occurs backstage before the curtains open for a show. Picture: AARDKLOP
Bring it on: The comedy-drama ‘Toutjies & Ferreira’ by Woordfees director and playwright Saartjie Botha provides a glimpse into the chaos that occurs backstage before the curtains open for a show. Picture: AARDKLOP

In her welcome foreword to this year’s festival guide, director of the US Woordfees in Stellenbosch, Saartjie Botha, points to the political dilemmas in the country and how that sometimes detracts from art festivals. But she’s optimistic.

“The world of the arts is a gentler place,” she says. “It is confrontational sometimes — and it should be — but it is a world focused on humanity ... and finally creates understanding and empathy for that humanity.”

The University of Stellenbosch Woordfees, the annual arts festival with books as its heartbeat, runs from March 1 to 10 with a programme that has grown through the years, from which theatre has arguably benefited most.

The festival needs a growing programme, but so do the audiences to get them thinking and talking. Right or wrong, arts festivals have become a lifeline for artists, and for many, one of the few times they have the opportunity to exercise their craft.

Apart from an extensive discourse programme which covers anything from the state of the nation to financial health as well as many book and author-related discussions, the fine arts, music (classical, jazz and pop), film, stand-up as well as children’s theatre all given a strong platform.

And added to that is WOW (Woorde Open Wêrelde: Words Open Worlds), an empowerment project focusing on the youth of previously disadvantaged communities, which includes the largest spelling competition in the country, sponsored by Sanlam.

Theatre lovers will know that they must add the Woordfees to their calendar.  Its programme this year especially sets the benchmark for the rest of the country and for times ahead. It is a festival that benefits from its university connection as well as a community that supports the arts and has a strong cultural understanding. But it has also broadened its reach, which has meant that its artistic offering has extraordinary depth and a variety that’s exciting. Diversity in the arts — especially in this country — is the only way to go.

Botha herself sets the tone with a comedy-drama titled Toutjies en Ferreira with two directors, Wolfie Britz and Nicole Holm, and a cast to die for, including Frank Opperman, Anthea Thompson, Aphiwe Livi, Malan Steyn, Melanie Scholtz and Antoinette Kellerman. If you have ever wondered about the backstage chaos an hour before the show starts at a festival, this is a rare glimpse into that world.

And launching into the stratosphere, extraordinary theatre maker Brett Bailey debuts with a new work, Samson, described as dance-musical theatre based on the Old Testament values of domination, treason and rebellion, yet set in today’s world of political extremism, inequality,  migration and violence. In the spotlight are opera, choral music, animation and electronic music — and the vibe promises that the brilliant theatre maker is at his  anarchistic best.

In classical vein Sylvaine Strike follows up last year’s inspired Sam Shepard offering with Samuel Beckett’s Endgame and a stellar cast of Antoinette Kellerman, Andrew Buckland, Rob van Vuuren and Soli Philander. It has already had a sold-out season at the Baxter with Strike unleashing her magic with powerhouse performances as she dissects the playwright’s exploration of relationships between the controllers and the controlled.

Her interpretations are unique and deal with the human condition. Director Marthinus Basson is a name with immediate appeal and with Antjie Krog’s Mi(SA)- Die Nuwe Verbond — ’n Misorde vir die Universum (The New Covenant — a Disorder for the Universe) and a cast of singers that includes Amanda Strydom and the Cape Town Opera Choir, fireworks are predicted. It is a complex thing (a Basson trait), with Krog’s new work and music by Antoni Schonken in conversation with the established and celebrated works such as the Missa Luba, the Missa Criola.

Basson pulls it all together with a blend of rites and liturgy to create a contemporary SA soundstage predominantly in Afrikaans but also adding many  words in Greek, Latin, English, Xhosa and Khoisan.

The choir brings depth to the texture with individuals telling their own stories and where they come from.

English productions include Carpets, a text which first surfaced at last year’s third Text Market initiated by Hugo Theart from Kunste Onbeperk (KKNK).

With the help of the Baxter as well as Nati (National Afrikaans Theatre Iniative), new texts are constantly being developed and evaluated with some selected to be further developed and staged at  other festivals. And while Carpets wasn’t one of the winning texts, it was selected for a performance at the Text Market where it has benefited from that exposure. Playwright and director Caitlin Wiggil has written an intriguing story about an agoraphobic woman unable to leave her house because of a traumatic experience.

Two playwrights rewarded with writer’s bursaries will be presenting plays: Herschelle Benjamin with Slavenhuis 39 explores what it means to be a person of colour, while Du Toit Albertze homes in on a young transgender woman who returns to her birthplace to investigate her past, in Klip Kween.

Both of these young playwrights are worth checking out. It is early in their writing careers, but they have already made their mark as they tell stories that open new worlds. Another transgender story titled Rokkie showcases a 48-year-old transgender woman from the Cape Flats, and is the solo debut of Charlton George, an actor with extraordinary talent; while Craig Morris returns with one of his breathtaking performances in Greig Coetzee’s Johnny Boskak is Feeling Funny.

It’s going to be fascinating watching James Cairns switch to Afrikaans in his solo show Dirt (which he has translated as Stof), directed by Jenine Collocott, who is also in charge of the family-orientated clown show Babbelagtig, with an extraordinary comedy ensemble including Jemma Kahn, Roberto Pombo, De Klerk Oelofse, Dean Bailie, Klara van Wyk, Thami Baba and David Viviers.

Marching in step is the Gerrit Schoonhoven-directed two-hander with partners Elize Cawood and Wilson Dunster in Narkose (Anesthesia). Two old clowns, Koos and Koos, are down and out but determined the show must go on. This talented trio have a way of sprinkling fairy dust whenever on stage, even when they gently let rip with the truth. Playwright Nico Lues is helping with the text.

And finally, with a title like GodgOdgoD, this irresistible piece has already reaped some reward with a cast as versatile as Charlton George, Ilana Cilliers and Wolf Britz. Described as experimental, language isn’t the star as the company explores identity — who we are, where we come from — and explodes the myths and theories that want to determine the way we live.

That’s only a handful, but do yourself a favour, go online and have a look at the programme, which is available in English. Be prepared to be overwhelmed. It is a staggering offering from the arts in all  their glorious diversity.