Red Cafe Wonderland

As my daughter and I ascend the staircase to Red Cafe I feel like I have stepped with Alice into Wonderland.

“The owner suffers, like, really badly from insomnia,” says fourth-year student daughter. Of course then, as we pass the lady at the front desk, I can’t help noticing the simply  enormous bags under her eyes.

“Just a thought,” I say to daughter, “don’t you think running a coffee shop might worsen her insomnia…?” Is it me or does the very same proprietor seem to work at double speed ringing up the till for waiting patrons, flashing away at the keys with a sort of caffeine-fueled energy?

Daughter and I step out onto the deck which is nestled quietly next to the leaves of a tree. The height and shrubbery shield us from the ordinary Grahamstown life below, adding to the fairy tale feel. While waiting for our red cappuccino and avocado shake , I glance across at a couple seated nearby. They breathe not a word to each other for the entire time we are there. And the young man is calmly painting his forearms. After surreptitiously investigating we discover that said young man is painting makeup foundation over tattoos on his inner arms. How curious. Perhaps he’s going to a job interview we wonder?

Even closer to our table is another man. Unlike the painter, this man is accompanied only by a vast bowl of cutlery. To say he isn’t talking to the cutlery would just be silly. But he does seem infinitely more fond of his silvery companion than the painter is of his friend. Even curiouser.

Action speeds up. Our waiter trips across to our table, sloshing my drink into its saucer.

“Oops,” he says cheerfully, “my nickname is Wobbles.” At the same time a tall, slender woman in a denim skirt walks past aiming for the table in the corner. As she sits down the raucous-harmonious sounds of a live singing group fill the air from below. I look up just in time to see the woman’s bearded profile come into view.

Is Red Cafe always like this? Or only at National Arts Festival time of year? I can’t tell. It has an atmosphere all of its own. One of a kind. I’d like to say I highly recommend Red Cafe. That you should go because you’ll have a unique experience. Problem is, I’m not quite sure if I’m dreaming or not…

Shepherding satiated student daughter downstairs after paying our bill to the night owl I say, “Come Alice, it’s time to go.”

Two university improv groups from opposite ends of the earth 

The festival full of festivities in Grahamstown has come to an end, some are happy and some are sad (although those disgruntled by the ‘traffic’ in the tiny town may be disappointed that the School’s Festival is just kicking off). A Feast of Tales watched and wrote about several shows each day of the first five days (Day one, two, three, four and five). Then, A Feast of Tales watched NatCaf (Naturally Caffeinated), the Rhodes student improvisation group and the Oxford Imps, the (quite obviously) Oxford improvisation group.

Improv theatre is unpredictable, and each show is different from the previous one because new scenes are created with various theatre games, so A Feast of Tales may not have seen the best of either group.

A comparison

NatCaf had the upper hand when it came to creating local jokes that many in the room could identify with, even so, they still reverted to jokes about Donald Trump and references to the Brexit vote which was populating the media greatly around the time of the show. There were several different types of performers on stage, making it interesting to watch, with only one rude sexual reference. Audience involvement was excellent and lots of people volunteered settings and characters when asked by the MC. This group, however, was still lacking in slickness and some jokes really just didn’t work (this may be personal opinion!). And the 21-year-old MC very naively declared at the start of the show that the National Arts Festival is only for people under 30…despite the several over 30s travelling to Grahamstown from far and wide to enjoy the theatre and art.

The Oxford Imps, while not local, had to work hard at capturing their audience in a different way. And work hard they did! Each scene ended with music and a slick change into the next theatre game, without any need to explain at length to the audience how each game was to be played. The show began with choosing someone from the audience to sit on stage and answer questions about herself, after the questions ended, each Imp sang a line serenading the volunteer on stage. Various other games were played, with no specific political references. They had the upper hand on professionalism, variety and slickness. The musical aspect added an interesting and entertaining dimension. For their first visit to the festival, the Oxford Imps were successful!

All in all A Feast of Tales enjoyed the Imps more than NatCaf, but is it really fair to compare the two with Oxford Imps having been around much longer than NatCaf?

Did you see both groups perform? What did you think?

National Arts Festival: A British Perspective

Day five of the national arts festival turned out to be a bumper British one for Feast of Tales. First up was Kettling of the Voices. This documentary showed footage from the ‘other side’ of the student protests in 2010 against university fee increases, as well as the 1990 protests against the poll tax. ‘Kettling’ was the police response to the crowds – a technique that involves forcing large groups of people into a confined space and keeping them there for hours. Police actions aside, we found it fascinating to see that student protests against fees are not unique to South Africa. Next up was the brilliant Oxford Imps. This improvisation comedy troupe from Oxford university were outstanding in their skits that fed directly off the audience. Highly recommended. Our last show for the day was the very thought-provoking Those You Pass in the Street, an Irish piece about dealing with past conflicts in Ireland. Kabosh Theatre Company, responsible for this play, uses drama to help heal hurts from political conflicts – such a purposeful way of using the medium. Their play was intensely applicable to South Africa.

 

National Arts Festival: A Music Perspective

Music and imagination formed the most enjoyable part of day four in Grahamstown for A Feast of Tales. Our first encounter was Nefilibata which was a dance piece set to light, uplifting sounds. The ‘dancers’ were in fact musical theatre students who gave a delightful presentation of a love story using contemporary dance, mime, and props designed to look like clouds and birds. The Festival Gala Concert was our second. Conducted by the personable Richard Cock and played by the Eastern Cape Philharmonic Orchestra, the well-attended performance delivered a variety of pieces that were explained by the conductor. So, we heard a piece to which the composer had, on its debut, invited women with the name (and variants of) ‘Anne’; another set composed by an Eastern Cape man in the midst of pain and sorrow; a concerto about a ‘gold and silver’ ball; chariots of fire; a piece called Mambozart; and beautiful compositions performed by the Standard Bank young performer of the year. All were designed to transport us listeners to a place of beauty and grandeur. Death of a Donut, while not exactly doing the latter, was nevertheless a fun murder mystery show – accompanied by suitably mysterious music – in which the audience was involved in the implication and solving of the murder. A number of school boys attending the performance were ecstatic when one of their teachers ‘died’ and the other ‘implicated’ in a murder. Women in Theatre, part of a Thinkfest, was definitely not musical, nor did it do much to stir the imagination. A little disappointed with its depth we left feeling that much more could have been made of the topic.

National Arts Festival: Day Three

Thinkfest was first up on A Feast of Tales’s agenda on day three of the NatArtsFest with a discussion on Gender Politics. The hour’s dialogue indicated that this rhetoric-laden topic still favours too much – well – dialogue and too little practical application. An over-aggressive approach also emerged as a problem. Number two on our schedule was the dialogue-heavy House of Truth in which actor, Sello Maake kaNcube, told the story of writer Can Themba and his struggles during apartheid to be recognised as a teacher. The drama had a good script but was depressing and failed to hold the audience’s attention for its overly long 90-minute duration. Hannah Arendt was another ‘struggle’ piece, though this time in the form of a movie. Like the Sophie Scholl film we saw on day two, Hannah Arendt presented a view of Nazi Germany somewhat different to what we were used to. In this story German-Jewish philosopher and author, Hannah Arendt, wrestled with the problem of evil, putting forward the – scandalous – ideas that German perpetrators of crimes in World War II may simply have failed to think and that Jewish victims may have been complicit in their own victimisation. Our day ended with the brilliantly executed The Echo of a Noise by Pieter Dirk-Uys, in which this renowned performer gave an autobiographical account of his life, revolving mostly around his combative relationship with his ‘Pa’. Rich, funny, tender and well-rounded, Uys’s performance was very deserving of its standing ovation.

 

National Arts Festival, Grahamstown: A Perspective

Day two in Grahamstown dawned difficult for the humans of Feast of Tales, which made the day’s entertainment ahead all the more welcome. First up was Brothers Streep: Same Streep Different Day. Unlike the previous version we had seen this show involved just the two ‘brothers’ rather than the whole band. The pair’s constant banter, their originality, and their songwriting – in the present as it were – was clean, enjoyable and made us forget our troubles. As the weather turned stirringly blustery we hurried off to one of the fest’s scheduled films, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days. This absorbing film tells the true story of a brother-and-sister team who were part of the White Rose student movement in Nazi Germany. Told mostly from the sister’s (Sophie’s) perspective, we learnt how Sophie and her brother were arrested and ‘tried’ for bravely disseminating anti-Hitler literature. Sophie’s Christian faith is portrayed as a strong, yet gentle, motivator for her actions. Own the Spotlight was the last viewing of the day for us, a dance show involving beautifully choreographed pieces of ballet, modern and contemporary dance set to engaging movie sound tracks.

National Arts Festival Grahamstown: A Perspective

On the first day of the festival, A Feast of Tales watched Breaking the Wall, a show which set the scene for our day ahead. In this two-man theatre piece the actors did a good job of making the audience feel uncomfortable by presenting issues of race in a humorous yet confronting way by periodically addressing us directly, thus ‘breaking the fourth wall’. By contrast, Whistle Stop was a flawless, tense, well-elocuted show in which the two actors expressed their thoughts in soliloquies. Those thoughts revolved around their attraction for one another, thoughts laden with emotion, conflict and sexual tension, displayed through movement and the use of one stage prop: a bench. Our lighthearted entertainment of the day was Brothers Streep: Stand up Musicians Plugged, a musical in which a band sang originals like the Steri Stumpi song, Intermission and the Day after Christmas, poking gentle fun at a variety of things. Not so lighthearted was Comedy Masterclass by Durban-based Aaron McIllroy. This seasoned actor-singer ‘taught’ his audience the do’s and don’ts of what appeared to be his autobiographical journey with comedy and music. The ‘comedy’, while reflecting the actor’s great versatility, ended with the sombre Charlie Chaplin piece, Just Smile.