A giant pole cartwheeled down through the central atrium of the 1820 Settlers National Monument. Clang! A few moments of nervous silence. Then, a rasping encore. A piece of the monument’s roof, torn off by gale-force winds, plummeted through the air, pegging into the wooden ground-floor stage like a giant tomahawk.
The colour slowly faded from the face of the National Arts Festival chief executive, Tony Lankester.
Just moments before, he had been telling the media about the encouraging attendance over the festival’s opening weekend of 28 June. And extolling his team’s efficient response to a crossbow arrow fired into the head of a magician’s assistant during a show.
In the wake of the ripped roof, it was difficult to escape the feeling that Africa’s biggest celebration of the arts had completed its years-long transition into a peculiar, liminal space. The festival’s glory days are renowned. Its recent economic struggles are well known. But where to from here is something of a puzzle.
Down the road at Lankester’s favourite festival institution, the Long Table, however, everything appeared to be much the same as it ever was.
The lion, the witch and the tables
Like entering Narnia, finding the festival’s most consistent establishment means knowing which obscure door to look behind.
Underneath an ancient yellowwood at the end of an anonymous High Street alleyway, a few steps from the high court, a message has been chalked on a blackboard outside of the parish offices of Makhanda’s iconic St Michael and St George Cathedral: “Office Closed”.
Behind the sign, the office is anything but closed.
In the early afternoon, it’s the smell of roasting lamb and chicken with rosemary that draws you into the Long Table. Later in the day, it’s lamb curry. After walking down a stuffy corridor of the parish bureaucracy’s offices and past a kitchen whose stack of fresh vegetables would be at home at any harvest festival, one enters a scene that, for most festivalgoers, is frozen in time.
Four banquet-style tables run the length of a hall that, somehow, has not changed since the early 1990s, when spontaneous moments were the stars that made up the Long Table constellation: a troupe of North African percussionists once used one of the tables as their drum for the night, on another evening everybody in the hall erupted into an unscripted rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine.
“It was almost like this was their home, and they felt comfortable,” remembers Michelle Kloppers, one of the restaurant’s co-owners.
The familiarity of the Long Table is less intention than it is a comfort zone. Kloppers and her business partner, Junitha Els, enjoy the clockwork of it all. First, spices come in from Cape Town, and wholesale ingredients from Gauteng and the Eastern Cape. Three weeks before the festival begins, the deserts are baked and frozen. Next, it’s the green and red curry pastes. Everything else – from the West African peanut soup to the Vietnamese beef – is cooked on the day, every day.
The Long Table opened around 1992 (neither Kloppers nor Els remember the exact year) as a beatnik cafe set around a… well, one long table. They hung art from the walls and served simple food. The recipe hasn’t changed much since.
Up the narrow stairs and towards the bar on the hall’s crowded stage, famous artists rub shoulders with their audiences, or with students nursing last night’s bitter aftereffects. Once there, the drinks menu is delightfully untrendy. Although, in a nod to the times, it was updated this year with more gin offerings.
For Megan Lewis, a theatre history and performance studies professor at the American University of Massachusetts Amherst and veteran festino, this proximity is what defines the Long Table. Theatre makers, she said, are able to “connect with their audiences in ways that usual celebrity culture prohibits. The idea that total strangers can sit down next to each other, break bread and discuss art is such a powerful democratic notion.”
While the Long Table’s prices may not mark it out as the most democratic establishment, Rob van Vuuren, who has now performed at the festival for 25 years, agreed that the restaurant serves as “a conduit and a communion” between artists and audiences. He said the shoulder-to-shoulder seating arrangement means nobody is ever atomised.
Bassist Shane Cooper, who won the 2013 Standard Bank Young Artist award for jazz, views the Long Table as “absolutely essential” to the festival. It’s the first place he visits after playing a show, for “the incredible atmosphere and buzz of the various artists and audience that gathers there”.
It’s the economy, stupid
For all of its familiarity, the Long Table has quietened down. After a mellow, if successful beginning to life, the restaurant grew into a mania in the years leading up to and following 2010, when the festival lengthened from 11 to 15 days. Where five years ago, the bar regularly roared until 5am, today its polite conversation rarely goes later than 1am.
For Lankester, it reflects recent economic pinches. “People are making more careful choices about how they spend their money” and sometimes sacrificing eating out to go and see shows instead, he said.
It mirrors the struggles playing out in the festival’s two other moral compasses: the daily Cue newspaper and the Village Green market. This year, for the first time in decades, there was no Cue media, in effect erasing a year from the official festival record, and depriving festinos of daily reviews.
A move to reintegrate the Village Green into Makhanda appears bootless for now. (In 2009 it was moved to the exclusive campus of the university currently known as Rhodes University in the name of global competitiveness.) Now at Victoria Girls High School, the market – complete with backing tracks of Californication, Free Falling and Leaving on a Jet Plane covers sung in off-key South African accents – remains as sanitised and overwhelmingly white as before.
Lankester maintained that the new Village Green is “the best that it’s ever been”. As for the social costs that moving the Village Green away from Makhanda’s inclusive centre may have incurred, said Lankester: “We’re here to get people in theatres and supporting the arts. Peripheral industries, and the other things that spring up, are an important part of the experience. But they’re not our core business.”
Where Lankester hits the nail on the head is the potential contained in the festival’s current malaise. “Festivals evolve,” he said. “They change. You can either hanker after a nostalgic view of what things used to be like 20 or 30 years ago. Or you can say, ‘Let’s be part of this evolution and see where it goes.’”
At present, it may not be the festival that many want. But the current uncertainty offers the chance to turn it into the festival that we need.
Cooper is one of the many performers who gave a glimpse of the festival’s perennial promise, even in the midst of its seasonal setbacks. When the electricity went off during his band Mabuta’s emotionally charged performance on 30 June, in a moment of acoustic wizardry he dropped his bass guitar, picked up a double bass and leapt to the front of the stage to join drummer Marlon Witbooi and trumpeter Robin Fassie-Kock, who had seamlessly kept the audience going in the dark.
But whatever the festival’s future, the Long Table will be a part of it. “We’ll be going on until we collapse,” said Kloppers.
Disclaimer: For research purposes when writing this piece, Dennis Webster spent a night behind the bar at the Long Table. He was not remunerated for this.