03/07/2014 09:07 BST | Updated 01/09/2014 06:59 BST

The Best of South Africa Gathers in Grahamstown and the Whole World Is Invited


[Credit: stokoesmission)

The global arts festival season never really stops. As the Europeans get started, Australia and New Zealand have already been going for six months, with record-breaking years for Perth and Adelaide, to name but two.

As Brighton Fringe settles into an agreeable misty haze, my attentions turn to the National Arts Festival of South Africa (3-13 July). And the rest of an all-too-often Eurocentric arts world would do well to do the same.

This is a veritable festival leviathan tucked away in provincial Grahamstown on the Eastern Cape. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, it's the largest arts festival on the African continent, with more than 500 events, 2500 performances, attracting over 200,000 people for what it calls "Eleven Days of Amazing".

And amazing it truly is. Such is the depth and breadth on offer, I cannot possibly see a year without going. Experimentation, particularly in small-scale theatre, is something I am always looking for and Grahamstown has it in spades.

Tony Lankester, CEO, says "The National Arts Festival is living proof of just about everything that is good about the arts. It shows how they can build social cohesion, be a force for good, be entertainment for entertainment's sake, create jobs and help people survive and reach out and move audiences in extraordinary ways."

Grahamstown has also become the crucible of many successful South African shows touring to World Fringe Alliance member festivals over the past 3 years. Lankester, who was also the inaugural chair of the World Fringe Alliance, has been candid in his commitment "As the only African member of the Alliance, hopefully, it plays a role in showing a different face of the continent to the rest of the world - a face which, too often, is defined by soundbites and images of despair."

This global touring network has seen at least a dozen South African shows, including Miskien, The Three Little Pigs, The Epicene Butcher and other Stories for Consenting Adults, Big Boys Don't Dance, Stuart Lightbody (Illusive and Stuperstition), A Girl Called Owl and Thom Paine (based on nothing) perform at Fringe festivals in Adelaide, Perth, Prague, Amsterdam, Brighton, Edinburgh and New York. It had also seen many other of the Alliance countries' shows, particularly Prague and Amsterdam, coming to Grahamstown.

Then there's the weather. It may be mid-winter, but it boasts temperatures and sunshine that Edinburgh can only dream of. And the Long Table must be the best festival hangout anywhere in the world, with wine prices I'd only previously seen at French hypermarkets.

For me though, the greatest thing about Grahamstown is that, however massive it may be, it still feels like a wonderful little secret, where you can find a new gem at any moment which could be the next record-breaking touring production. And that is one responsibility I'm more than happy to shoulder.

My bags are packed...