British Elephants open South African National Arts Festival

Grahamstown is a sleepy little University town which is rammed to the rafters by theatre folk, dancers, musicians and others for two weeks every June. There’s 200 shows in the main programme, 400 in the fringe. It’s a bit like Edinburgh. But tighter- more familiar than Edinburgh- a bit like a National Student Drama Festival but for grown ups. A celebration it seems of performance rather than a market place (although that element is still here naturally).

The Festival opened properly this morning with the show, Amathole: a procession through a township. It was a story telling theatre procession that started in the car park of a school before ending in a car park of a factory.

It was the story of a prodigal son. Upon returning his brother who stayed behind is unhappy. They fight. The prodigal declares he has magical powers- he can find water, and it would appear conjure elephants. The former being vitally important in Africa, the latter impressive anywhere.
The brother leads the community to where he will conjure water and, after a fight with his brother, does lo and behold conjure water.


I love a good story. Especially with water and elephants.



It was particularly brilliant to see it here in one of Grahamstown many townships. Lucy and I did some filming here three of four years ago and the place has come on leaps and bounds since then- brick buildings, new schools, new church, electricity.
The townships surround Grahamstown proper on each of the hills- they are three times the size of the town itself. Dave Toole keeps referencing circled wagons and there is some sense of that if I’m honest.

Whilst taking part in the procession, I had already started to write a narrative in my head about how this was the sort of theatre we don’t get enough of in the UK. How there isn’t a culture of mass community-based story-telling spectacular and we don’t have the skills or the stomach for it.
Anyway there I was chuntering away to myself when I returned home and read the programme. The show was a collaboration between Dodgy Clutch Theatre (UK) and Uphondo Lwe Afrika (an artist collective) and the people of Grahamstown. And was supported by the Arts Council, England.

It was a brilliant show- a combination of procession and set pieces that managed to tell story, and regularly surprise with its inventiveness. And most importantly make the 2 miles it travelled fly by.

The procession part of the performance was flanked by youth groups on stilts, with masks and singing songs. One group, each member complete with flag, started to sing the World Cup, Coca-Cola song “Wavin’ Flag” complete with dance routine.
There is something- and I am not a particularly sentimental person ordinarily- about this brilliant group of young people singing at the top of their lungs “When I get older, I will be stronger, They’ll call me freedom, just like a waving flag” that got to me at once- in this place of all places. The idea that Freedom is not an abstract concept- it is a way of being that can be named, and declared in the street.
The kids sang that song marching along for 25 minutes non stop- a loop of determination and happiness.
It made me laugh that it was a combination of youth theatre, Global Corporate Advertising and durational performance that had so strongly affected me.

I love a good story. Especially with hope, smiling faces, waving flags and fizzy pop.


I don’t think you have truly lived until you’ve escorted Dave Toole through a township. He tends to draw attention wherever he goes but here it is really extraordinary. People either recognise him from DV8’s The Cost of Living which is an inspiring ng moment in itself, or else the car guards and street kids have seen him on the posters that are about town and are keen to say hello to the man in the bike basket ripping off E.T. He wheels himself about town like a movie star.
Which bodes well for the show. First one in a couple of hours so I better go and get ready. Fingers crossed.

Grahamstown, South Africa


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