The lowdown on the National Arts Festival

ARTS lovers and Festival fans have been grabbing their coffee, credit cards and calendars since the National Arts Festival’s 2017 programme went online and opened for booking at

Mark Hawkins’s delightful reimagining of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in celebration of the Johannesburg Youth Ballet’s 40th anniversary. Set to Mendelssohn’s score, the ballet moves from the contemporary world of taxis, car guards and unemployed actors to a fantasy world of psychedelic neon-coloured fairies dancing through bubble wrap forests at the behest of the King and Queen of the fairies. This production celebrates exciting emerging talent and offers perfect family entertainment

Newcomers to the Festival may feel a little overwhelmed by the 700 productions on offer, so this is a short guide to navigating the programme.

The key Festival programme comprises a Main and Fringe programme. The Main Programme showcases works that have been selected by a 21-person artistic committee after a lengthy application and consideration period. Dance, theatre, music, performance art and visual art are all represented in this mix and audiences flock to these popular shows which include the work of the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artists. The Main Programme also features international work and a lot of brand new work from South Africa’s top talent.

The Arena is part of the Main Programme and showcases the work of previous winners of the National Arts Festival’s Standard Bank Ovation Awards as well as international award-winning fringe productions.

Trailing endless accolades and endorsements from international festivals – including the Brighton and Cape Town Fringe 2016 – the UK’s The Pretend Men will present ‘Police Cops’, an action-packed hour of adrenaline-fueled physical comedy, cinematic style and uncompromising facial hair. Runs daily throughout the Festival Picture: MASSIMO BATTISTA

The Fringe component of the Festival also sees a mix of works across genres but these are not curated or selected. Anyone with a performance looking for an audience can enter to be on the Fringe and the result is an exciting lucky packet of shows. From bold new work to remakes of the classics, from debuts to familiar faces and everything in between – they are all on the Fringe.

The National Arts Festival is part of the World Fringe Alliance and draws on a pool of Fringe talent and talent-spotters to stimulate an exciting and innovative global energy for both performers and audiences.

The Student Theatre portion of the programme is a platform for interesting new work from the universities and colleges of South Africa.  Expect to see young creatives flexing their muscle both on stage and behind the scenes as they receive an invaluable introduction to the experience of performing at the Festival.

Think!Fest is a non-performance element of the Festival. The ideas, emotions and conversations surrounding the Festival programme play out in this space, where speakers, groups and panels swap opinions and create an open floor for robust discussion

Heading to the screen, the annual Film Festival is a collection of seldom seen films that are making an impact through their content and creativity. The programme features work from South Africa and abroad and reflects on some of the themes and ideas in the Festival’s stage programme.

The Standard Bank Jazz Festival is a hot highlight of the National Arts Festival. Bringing some of the best talent locally and globally to the stage, it is here that once-off collabs between musicians are either seen once and never repeated or form the basis for ground-breaking new projects between artists. The Dakawa Jazz Series is another music highlight, a project of the Eastern Cape’s Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture, the series brings Eastern Cape jazz musicians to the stage for an annual showcase of the region’s talented artists.

Formed by South African-born Naomi Tagg, Neolektra has an orchestrally rich sound, diverse in genre and instrumentation with the violin at the very centre. Their revolutionary sound has been likened to film and gaming music and has been described as hypnotic, surreal, and beautiful. They will be performing as part of the Main programme at the National Arts Festival on 3 July 3 at 7.30pm and July 4 at 1pm in the Thomas Pringle Hall. Picture: KAY WAHLIG

In association with the Cathedral of St Michael and St George, Grahamstown, SpiritFest explores faith through a series of workshops, discussions, book launches and performances.

This year Grahamstown’s Child Welfare celebrates its 100th anniversary and there are plenty of family-orientated shows, talks and workshops at the Festival, as well as a daily story time where children will be read to by actors and others. Check in on the Family Fare section of the programme for more.

There is also the Children’s Art Festival, held at St Andrew’s Preparatory school, with a daily programme of events for children aged 4-13. It is an ideal way for families to engage with the National Arts Festival at their various age and interest levels, and for parents to enjoy the Festival knowing that their children are being stimulated and entertained in a safe environment.

Beyond the scheduled programme there is always lots going on in Grahamstown during the Festival with a free daily SAfm Sundowner Concert at the Monument, street performers, the Fingo Festival, markets and free entertainment stages and the annual closing Street Parade through the streets of Grahamstown. The restaurants, cafes and bars buzz until late at night as Festival-goers debate ideas, mingle with artists and share their top tips.

Tickets range from R20 to R150 and can be booked directly on the National Arts Festival’s site.

For a guide to planning and booking of accommodation and travel, visit the National Arts Festival’s hospitality guide and FAQ’s on the website.


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