Festival shakes off the ashes, gutters and bursts into flame

Yeah, it was smaller, yeah there was no great showmanship or suits swanning about in open-neck branded golf shirts, and of course, the Village Green lost a few tents along the way.

But this was probably the most vital test for the national arts festival in it’s 49-year life.

Covid totally shut down the 2020 fest, and then, as the bell for the first round of 2021 was about to be rung, again the Covid gang swept the legs out of the legendary arts happening.

So, Covid and the State threw the switch. Festival was off, but for a few flashing digital lights. There you go, you cynical, fickle loudmouths. No live art. No free-to-experiment stages. All dead, dead, dead.

But the president and his wise council, along with a lot of jabs and jabber, decided we could come out into public life again, and, whoopee, no more of those stifling, menacing masks.

In a 27-year run of fests, I have heard many of the dumbest, egotistical slag-offs of the festival — it won’t survive in an Eastern Cape poverty hell-hole, it belongs in the wealthier cosmopolitan money holes, its venues can’t stand the pace, the weather is crap.

Officially, you might not hear this, but Standard Bank threw a curved ball and did a funding duck, abandoning the jazz and youth jazz just like that, as we got to the ticket box. It can’t be, people said, but it was true.

And as ever, there were government funding starts and farts.

But here is what happened: the show went on!

And the the people came.

And the artists were amazed. They could not stop thanking the festinoes for pitching in these peripatetic, unconscionable fund-munching times. People who steal from the mouths of babes feel less about grabbing the lunch from starving artists and their families.

But festival, like us, has changed.

There was a lot of art in so many genres, yes, not as much as the past, but more than enough to give a great spread of shows in a day. Too many to choose from.

There was food and dop, and frikkin’ car guards, and giant potholes, and a damn digital programme.

All the stuffing of a good fest. But this was new: nobody appeared to give a toss about a show moved by loadshedding or a phone running out of battery preventing your puzzle-shaped ticket from having a good snog with the scanner on the ticket-keeper’s phone.

There was a remarkable patience and calm. It was gratitude really. Just glad to be off that couch and away from mind-blitzing Netflix, and being in the sun, and the frozen benches, or those great Guy Butler bum-hugging seats, just so glad that the arts survived, and the festinoes survived too.

It was the most profound test — and the festival passed. Not with flying colours and corporate Noddy badges but simply getting actors and artists back on the boards, before a crowd, small to large and having our say about SA, the world, all the kak and joy.

So yes, the event carried it’s rich streak of survival through the pandemic and faced down a crisis even bigger than the protest theatre era when the state breathed on the neck of the artists and audience. This was a festival twice declared dead bouncing back from ICU.

A word of congratulations to CEO Monica Newton and the festival team. You worked off the cusp of impossible uncertainty and pushed through and it came together brilliantly.

So many youths having the time of their lives. A stroke of genius to combine the schools festival with the NAF.

Here is the crux of the matter: festinoes no longer watch from the outside, no longer dispassionate, slightly-alienated, loose-lipped couch sitters. We are into to the space with the performers, move with them, think alongside the action, and then make up our minds.

The rest is indulgent bullshit.

See you next year for another round of emotional, aesthetic, philosophical dive bombing, tail swinging and soaring experiences.

And candied nuts, gluhwein, all the goodies that fill the soul.

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