It was thrilling to attend the 2023 the Toyota SU Woordfees, which took place from October 7-15 October in Stellenbosch- nine days- an epic scale festival.
Woordfees began in 2000 as a writer’s festival – an all-night celebration of Afrikaans literature and has developed into a mammoth arts festival – including theatre, talks, books, art, films and satellite events. The 2023 Woordfees was my first experience of the festival. The theme for 2023 was Borrel – bubble. That conjures up a lot – bubbly as in wine, happy; bubble as being in one’s bubble and so on. Driving to Stellenbosch, I was mindful of entering the beautiful bubble of Stellenbosch – university town and winelands, wiith its heritage and impeccably kept buildings and grounds. Writers and artists have made their home in the bubble of Stellenbosch. The past is not another country and there was a dynamic and vital embrace of the past as it intersects with the present and future, at Woordfees 2023. For instance, there was a screening of the documentary, What the Soil Remembers, directed and written by José Cardoso, about a community, Die Vlakte which was “forcibly and violently removed” in the 1960s, to make space for Stellenbosch University. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the film and hope to watch it at some point.
Social Impact and Transformation
Woordfees is more than annual arts festival. It forms part of the division for Social Impact and Transformation at Stellenbosch – which includes long-term projects which make an impact on thousands of people – throughout the year. For instance, take a look at WOW: “The Words Open Worlds (WOW) encourages learners a love for words through reading, spelling competitions, writers’ visits and creative writing projects. WOW reaches over 2 500 schools and 270 000 learners, across South Africa annually.” I did not know this. Read more here https://woordfees.co.za/en/our-story/
Shuttles – ahh- making it easy to navigate Woordfees- a pleasure
I loved Woordfees 2023. I loved being in beautiful Stellenbosch, I have not been into the town for a long time – probably before the pandemic and was amazed at how the town has grown. One of the challenges of navigating an arts festival, which is spread out, is getting from venue to venue and finding parking. Woordfees 2023 had that sorted- with a fleet if shuttle mini busses, provided by its naming sponsor, Toyota. There was a nominal charge (but when I was on the shuttle, no tickets were asked for which delighted festival goers). It was a pleasure to park on the outskirts of Stellies and get a lift into the town. There was a number to call, if one was stranded. Bravo to the directors, Toyota, Stellenbosch University and other producers; funders and partners for making Woorfees a huge success. Most of the shows that I attended were sold out or almost sold out. Stellenbosch is about 45 minutes from Cape Town. Get to Woordfees 2024. Watch this space.
Theatre at Woordfees 2023
Theatre is my primary beat and I was at Woordfees for one and half days to get a sense of the festival and to see productions which I have not previously seen. There were 37 theatre productions at Woordfees 2023. Of those, 13 made their debut at the festival. I had seen around 22 productions in Cape Town and other festivals.
Here are some quick impressions of what I saw at Woordfees 2023. I hope that these productions will be staged in Cape Town and I will write more when they are staged again.
Droomwerk, written and produced by Pieter Odendaal, took my breath away. It is the debut play of Odendaal who is a poet. It is a lyrical and elegiac lament – grappling with making sense of our complex and fractured histories and how we somehow make sense of where we are now- slip-sliding between dream, nightmare and reality. It unpacks so much around mental health- personal, social, political. Here is the blurb, to give a sense of this powerful production: “How do you reconcile having an apartheid senator grandfather and a slave ancestor in your family tree? Award-winning poet Pieter Odendaal talks about his debut as a playwright. Petrus is in a facility for the mentally ill and dreams about his ancestors. His progenitor, Diana of Madagascar, is looking for her lost daughter. His grandfather Piet, an apartheid senator, relives his speeches on his deathbed. Can Petrus bring about reconciliation in his family, or is he too ill to distinguish between reality and dream?” Droomwerk was awarded the 2021 ATKV-Woordveertjie for best new text.
Direction is Kanya Viljoen, with accompanying direction by Lwanda Sindaphi. Set and lighting design by Viljoen. I felt like I was in a trance like state, watching Droomwerk. I did miss out on nuances as it the text as it is largely in Afrikaans and would like to see it performed with surtitles but I am mindful of the politics of translation. That is another story. A shout out to the extraordinary Kanya Viljoen who has left her beloved South Africa, to study for her PhD in Germany. It is a five year programme and we will miss this incredible creative.
The cast of Droomwerk at Woordfees 2023: Jill Levenberg, Ben Albertyn, Johann Nel, Tyrish Mili, Johann Vermaak.
Tuis Ek’s Liefie
This production – a Toyota US Woordfees production -is the Afrikaans translation of the play by Laura Wade: Home, I’m Darling. The play won the 2019 Olivier Awards for Best New Comedy. I loved Tuis Ek’s Liefie, directed by Janice Honeyman with a stunner of a set by Wolf Britz (and lighting). The cast, headed up by Cintaine Schutte is magic. The play pivots around Judy who takes voluntary retrenchment and decides to lead a 50s styled lifestyle – as house-wifey in a 50s styled home – mixing cocktails for her hubby. The fantasy crumbles. We see financial and personal issues as it all unravels. Judy resorts to selling her wardrobe on Facebook Marketplace and stashing unpaid bills in the kitchen.
The translation is by Francois Toerien and even with my kak Afrikaans- I got the narrative. Fabulous music choices and physical comedy (choreography by Adelle Blank). In my opinion, it is a tad too long and could do with some trimming of monologues. All up, I loved this production and the riffs of kitchen sink drama, mediated through a delicious double volume set and costumes- straddling a millennial vibe with the artifice of 50s chic nostalgia.
The cast for Woordfees 2023: Cintaine Schutte, Wessel Pretorius, Chrystal-Donna Roberts, Carlo Daniels, Amanda Strydom, Veronique Jephtas.
Die vegetariër is a stage adaption of Han Kang’s Booker Prize winning novel, The Vegetarian (2016). Adaptation and translation into Afrikaans, by Willem Anker. I had read the novel sometime back and was reeled in by its absurdity and tragedy. It is about a woman who stops eating meat – to the disdain of her husband and middle class family. There is extreme violence and nudity (in the book and the stage production), with violation on many levels. I am a huge fan of the director, Jaco Bouwer and once again, he left me reeling as I watched. In addition to the direction, he is responsible for the set design. Lighting by Wolf Britz. Incredible cast, led by the extraordinary Tinarie van Wyk Loots, with a visceral immersion in physical theatre. The installation type set is a character in its own right – domestic violation space, artist studio, abattoir, mental hospital, woods. The staging is beyond innovative. Interestingly, several people I know who fully conversant in Afrikaans, did not like this production. They did not “get the story” and felt that it was innovative in terms of staging but that the narrative was unclear. I have read the book and that certainly mapped out the play for me and even with my grasp of Afrikaans, I totally got the story but I had read the book. I stand by my rave: Die vegetariër is an intriguing play and thrilling theatre. I hope to see it staged in Cape Town.
Die vegetariër was made possible by Toyota US Woordfees and supported by NATi.
Woordfees 2023 cast: Tinarie van Wyk Loots, Wilhelm van der Walt, Stian Bam, Melissa Myburgh.
✳ Featured image: Droomwerk– written and produced by Pieter Odendaal, River Mouth Projects. Direction, set and lighting design by Kanya Viljoen and accompanying director- Lwanda Sindaphi. This production made possible by Toyota US Woordfees, National Arts Festival,Noordwes-Universiteit. Photo by Mark Wessels.