Grahamstown National Arts Festival, Thomas Pringle Hall
03.07.2015 – 05.07.2015
Does one applaud performance art? Or is that somehow bad form? When you see a painting you like you don’t applaud the skill of the artist, although undoubtedly gallery openings would be more entertaining if that were the case. It’s a question that’s been plaguing me since I caught the continental premiere run of Athi-Patra Ruga’s The Elder of Azania at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown. Back in Cape Town, I put it to Google and was gently but firmly directed to a Wikihow page with illustrated clapping techniques. Part 2, “Clapping at the right time” seemed promising (Tip: “When you are in an audience and everyone is clapping, stop at the appropriate time and don’t continue to clap after everyone else has stopped”), but still assumed a degree of familiarity with the complex unspoken rules that surround the expression of approval.
Maybe I don’t go to enough theatre to have developed an informed opinion either way. My tastes are pretty pedestrian, to be honest; I like musicals, especially the bits when everyone harmonises. Confronted with the most recent chapter of Ruga’s ongoing Azania saga, though, even the comparatively seasoned theatregoers of the National Arts Festival seemed at a loss. When the lights came up after the show, they were met by a smattering of hesitant applause and a collective clearing of throats.
I don’t believe that’s a reflection of the quality of The Elder, but rather the hybrid space in which it locates itself. Preceded by ticket sales, taking place on a stage framed by curtains, heralded by dimming lights, the work belongs (more so than Ruga’s earlier work, certainly) to the language of theatre. There’s an impulse to anticipate the logic of the performance accordingly: that there will be a semblance of narrative, a chronological or at least linear progression and a defined conclusion, perhaps some final clash of cymbals, after which point we will all clap the tired clap of people who are seeing ten shows a day in the rain.
There are no such hard and fast meanings in The Elder, no tidy beginnings or ends. Some stuff happens – messily, excessively – and then it stops happening. As the audience enters the Thomas Pringle theatre at the 1820 Settlers Monument, The Elder (presumably? We’re given few clues to this effect, but a throne of Rhodes drama students festooned with flowers is sufficient sign of sovereignty in my book) is already seated on stage. A veil of hair masks all signifiers of race and gender identity. Over the sound system Ruga’s distant disembodied voice relays a canned history of rule in the fictional land of Azania. This opening scene, like each “episode” of the ritual that follows, lasts just a little bit too long. The audience wriggle in their seats uneasily, sit up, wriggle once more.
When the action eventually begins it’s in the form of a procession of figures decked out in balloon costumes and high heels, quickly becoming the signature fashion of Azania. They aren’t in any rush. They fight? Play? Fuck, maybe? It’s hard to tell, but the aftermath is a stage plastered in neon paint, Christmas lights and talcum powder, the various contents of the balloons. Behind the actors, Ben Johnson’s vivid, psychedelic video work imagines the kaleidoscope world of Azania’s flora and fauna, but the disjunction between the projected and staged action serves to further detach The Elder from a determined time and space. Nothing seems to gel in this visual spectacle; everything is too much, too fragmentary.
Two audience members leave quietly about halfway through. It’s not the first time that happened during the show’s run. Siya Ngcobo, in his interview with Ruga for Festival magazine Cue, notes that there were walk-outs at the show’s premier. “Good riddance”, he adds. We too frequently discount the work of audiences, I think. And it is work. Audiences witness and interpret. They produce their own aesthetic experience, and in doing so, help to generate the meaning of a piece. In this case, I’d take the walk-outs less as a failing of the audience and more a success of the work. Walking out – my guess, an impatient response to The Elder’s pacing – confirms that Azania has successfully expanded from the stage and interfered with the space and time of the spectator.
Afterwards everyone waits in silence (punctuated by a nervous laugh or two) for ages before the lights come up.
In its breakdown of the structuring logic of theatre, the work is deliberately evasive; an extravagant vehicle for fantastical content. Ruga animates the world of Azania not just as an escapist fantasy but as a challenge to the limits of our political and aesthetic imaginations. By insisting on another time and place (and pace), the artist invites us to escape too, to believe that other times and places possible.
I decided to clap, in case you’re wondering.