Review: A Feast in Time of Plague, documentary directed by Amber Fox-Martin and Philip Theron

A Feast in Time of Plague ispremiering at Encounters International South African Documentary Festival 2020 which is on August 20 – 30, 2020. This film opens on Friday 21 at 9am and will be available until August 30 [until midnight]. There is a 400 view limit per screening at Encounters.

✅ Direct booking link at Encounters:

Production and booking details for Encounters, follow

A Feast in Time of Plague is a must watch film. The 38 minute narrative documentary provides illuminating insights into the contribution of Afrikaans theatre makers, working in Cape Town, in the 70s and 80s under the yoke of the Apartheid regime. Beyond its value as a documentary, archival footage conjures up a vivid sense of a theatre master-class –so that we may look and learn from productions which were groundbreaking and which are bound to inspire contemporary theatre makers in the use of metaphor, image and approach.

This film surprised and delighted me in terms of bringing to life stagings of plays which continue to be talked about with reverence. I have seen interesting documentaries around theatre in South Africa but the thrust tends to veer into people bearing witness: “We were there. We were there when the Security Police raided. Imagine, that theatre was seen as a danger and threat to the state.” In A Feast in Time of Plague, the directors have framed the narratives within the context of Apartheid South Africa and the fact that theatre taking place at the Nico Malan, under CAPAB [The Cape Performing Arts Board, formed,1963]  was primarily a white’s only affair.

In 1974, Adam Small had to get a permit to watch his own play, Kanna hy kô Hystoe, at the Nico Malan. Six months later [1975], the doors were open to mixed audiences but the complex with its superb technical facilities was still primarily the domain of white theatre makers. Yes, this is the context, and a frame is put around the period through archival footage which clearly demarcates the time and place. However, within this capsule, extraordinary work took place – much of it is not known to contemporary theatre makers. The value for me in this film is the sharing of the skills and expertise of artists like Marthinus Basson, Pieter-Dirk Uys, Johan Esterhuizen and Pieter Fourie – and conveying how and what they staged – the concepts, images, ideas – that were brought to seminal dramas such as August, August, August (1969), Titus Andronicus (1970), Bacchus in Die Boland (1975), Die Plaasvervangers (1978), Christine (1986), Anatomie Titus: Fall of Rome (1986), Quartet (1988), Piekniek by Dingaan (1989) and Kinkels innie Kabel (1989).

I did not grow up in Cape Town and was intrigued to learn about the productions that were staged by CAPAB, under its artistic director, Pieter Fourie. The company, under his leadership, was established according to Brechtian principles – the East Bloc ideal – Eastern European models. In 1969, Fourie went to Germany and met German directors such as Peter Kleinschmidt. In 1969, Kleinschmidt came out to Cape Town and directed August, August, August – a drama triggered by The Prague Spring in the Czech Republicin 1968. Here was a play about things happening somewhere else which reflected what was going on in South Africa. Theatre makers could “get away with it” by staging a work “about somewhere else”. We are told in the documentary that Peter Kleinschmidt believed that censorship “had its benefits “as it “forced artists to use metaphor to discuss contemporary problems” by finding innovative ways through metaphor and image. One could work within the constraints of white CAPAB and make theatre which was not “politically correct”. Much of it was “subversive” to its core but the state censors tended to miss the jabs that were made.

Issues of the perils of “political correctness” and “self-censorship” are mooted in the film. If you get funding from an entity, it doesn’t mean that you need to bend to the moral compass of that entity or funder. There are ways and means of creating artistic solutions to interrogate burning issues and stories.

A Feast in Time of Plague was made in association with the Stellenbosch University History Department and formed the thesis of Fox-Martin’s honour’s degree. For her thesis film, she received a cum laude grading. The title of the film is inspired by an Alexander Pushkin play, where the principal figure taunts death in a toast: “And so, O Plague, we hail thy reign!”.

A Feast in Time of Plague presents a potent combo of live performance, archival footage, and interviews. It is documentary – documenting a period and it is theatre master class – with glimpses into how the productions manifested on stage. I also like it that this doccie is 38 minutes. It is a lean, sharply edited film. Less is more and many doccies on theatre are too long – in my opinion.

Feast in Time of Plague [2019] and booking info at Encounters

✅ Directors: Amber Fox-Martin and Philip Theron

Running time: 38 minutes

✅ Direct booking link at Encounters:

✅ Tickets: No charge but limited availability per screenings –400 seats

✅ Access: Geo-locked/blocked for viewers out of SA but live events, panel discussion etc will be open to all

✅ Country: South Africa [2019]

Language: English, Afrikaans with subtitles

✅ Age advisory: The film has a PG13 (LN) age advisory

✅ Contact info: Amber Fox-Martin by e-mail

✅ Film media release info:

Image credit: Photo supplied- Antoinette Kellermann and Neels Coetzee in Quartet, 1988. CAPAB. Courtesy of Artscape Archive.