It was as though I’d fallen through a rabbit hole. I was aware of the Arts Festival and was looking for the Jewel Route but all I’d found so far was a statue on the Grand Parade being wrapped in plastic (something about transparent governance?) and then a woman with a megaphone – who claimed to be the Minister for the Glorious Preservation of the Kultural Treasures of the Mother City – had slapped a yellow sticker on me which declaimed me ‘Corporatised’.
Then as I crossed Strand St to the station, I stumbled into a performance of Invisible Gold. A garbage truck pulled up and the workers leapt off and began dancing in and around the waste bins. Two women in Victorian dresses scanned the area with a compass. A man tried to sell the audience ‘dignity’ in the form of a fish. I stood bemused, unsure how to distinguish the performers from the everyday commuters. It was both disconcerting and provocative, with passersby compelled to witness the strange actions that were unfolding.
The image of water was the key motif linking the performances. Some actors were searching for rivers, others rearranging a map to depict urban expansion over bodies of water. There was a sense that water was the treasure, an invisible gold hidden beneath the city. But as bizarre and interesting as some of the happenings were, I found myself waiting for a ‘bang’, an ‘a-ha’ moment, a climax in this convoluted conundrum. Just then a performer leapt from a wheelbarrow and… instant pandemonium. What occurred next in the performance I will not disclose, but hordes of passersby and even security were sucked into the action that echoed through the white marbled halls of Cape Town’s train station. Not in years have I seen such fervency in a crowd, particularly a crowd that had not intentionally gone to witness a performance. The effect was both electrifying yet unnerving. Unrehearsed, the crowd was mimicking the very element of human nature that the performance was criticising: cruel curiosity.
As the performance came to a close I felt drained but high and ready for more. We were just in time for the Time Flies Treasure Hunt. Starting at the sundial on the station forecourt, where the first clue is placed at noon everyday of the festival, the treasure trail leads city slickers through the CBD, along a trail of clues, where they can win one of several luxury experiences at some of the Cape’s most delightful hotels. Having previously worked with Myer Taub, the creator of the treasure hunt, I can say with certainty that a participant will have to be in top form to crack the visual clues. But regardless the ability to solve the clues, the chance to wander through our fair(ly chaotic) cosmopolitan city is a treasure on its own. The rancid car fumes mixed with smells of delectable hot food, the rickety stalls brimming with bargains and the gracious whiffs of air-conditioning from department stores all culminate in an experience that is robust and full-bodied, as if the Mother City herself were serving up a cup of her best coffee.
I continued to Adderley Street and turned into Castle Street just after 1pm to catch the Jazzing Class on St. Georges Mall. The instructor walked into the square with old jams blaring forth from an official festival bakkie nearby. Only a handful of people built up the courage to take a dance class in front of the crowd, me included. As my feet stepped to the beat I was instantly whisked away to a house party in a nondescript coloured community many, many years ago. For the first time that day I stopped wondering what other people were thinking or what the point was and just let go. No avant-garde altercations or enigmatic images, just pure unadulterated ‘lekker jolling’. And I learnt something new (or at least relearned something I didn’t learn properly the first time around): the art of jazzing… coloured style.
But it was hot in the city and the dancing had been tiring, so I returned to the relative cool of the station court to check out one last exhibition – Golden Eggs: Sick Hen. This performance is set to take place over the course of the week with the goal of constructing two shacks that represent different forms of shack living. The idea of building over a period of time, of development, is what makes this exhibition engaging. It shows that the festival is not a series of disjointed repetitions but a progressive journey to uncover and render supreme the zeitgeist of the city, the ‘treasures’ that people overlook on a daily basis.
When I thought I had seen it all, a group of car guards arrived and performed with luggage trolleys. The festival guide did not specify the location of the performance entitled The No.1 Unexpected Undercover Cleaning Agency, but when I saw those car guard uniforms I knew I was lucky. This unexpected surprise was the cherry on top of an already exciting day.
What I experienced was but a sliver of the multitude of rich experiences the festival has to offer. There are so many surprises in store for visitors, some of which I almost certainly overlooked. But to taste this festival is something I recommend to anyone, not only theatre enthusiasts. It infuses the city with a sense of joy, of rediscovery, of vivacious celebration. The works of art speak to the heart of the Mother City, unearthing the skeletons in her closet, rejoicing in the freedom of the present day, and lighting the way for discovery in the future. My advice: leave your car at home and experience the festival on foot. “It’s a arts festival but you don’t understand a blerrie thing” I overheard one man say. Maybe it was true for him but either way many treasures await.