Eastern Cape / Events and Festivals

The Grahamstown Festival

Updated Monday, 18 April 2022

It was opening night and adrenalin and lack of sleep were fueling an unhealthy intensity in the house we were staying in. We had arrived in Grahamstown after a ten hour drive which ended with the actors in the back seat trading more elbow jabs and knees to the midsection than in a Thai kickboxing match. We were in Grahamstown, a small town in the Eastern Cape, for the National Arts Festival, a highlight on South African arts circuit occuring at the end of June/ beginning of July every year.

Grahamstown National Arts Festival

The first thing to know about Grahamstown is that it is absolutely freezing, which only seemed to give the theatrical types more reason for hysteria and mayhem, little dramatic dynamos generating their own internal sources of heat. For the rest of us proper winter clothing is essential. Stretched over about 10 days, the festival is a melting pot of the most brilliant, creative and utterly strange things the country has to offer.

For the current National Arts Festival Programme please see National Arts Festival Programme.

At the central market, which serves as the hub for the daytime activities, you’ll be accosted by everything from half-naked hypnotists and hardselling Hare Krishnas to actors evangelising about why their particular play will change your life. The market is also home to a cornucopia of traders selling everything from didjeridoos to cures for arthritis, so it’s a pefect place for unusual gifts.

The theatre experience is divided between the Main programme and the Fringe programme. The Main programme features the cream of South African theatre and is a sure-fire way to get down to some serious theatrical appreciation. The only way to describe the Fringe experience is to liken it to shopping in a antique curio shop. There are hundreds of strange and bizarre little theatre trinkets to choose from. Some of them are unique and valuable while others are useless junk.


Like antique shopping, however, the only way to find out which is which is to browse thoroughly. Whether comic, tragic or just plain incomprehensible, the Fringe programme is the place where old theatre conventions are broken and new theatre trends are made. Whatever the merits of the plays, young talent is inexorably drawn to experimental nature of fringe theatre and it can be a showcase for the raw passion that is theatre’s lifeblood. You have been both encouraged and warned!

Food is an important commodity wherever you go, but no more so than when the temperatures drop toward zero.

Hearty, hot food is a lifesaver at the festival and one of the best places to enjoy it is at the Long Table. The Long Table is a bit of an institution at the Festival, situated in an old hall and filled with, yes, long tables, the restaurant looks more like a soup kitchen than a place of fine dining. The food, however, is great and it’s a wonderful place drink wine and rub shoulders with the actors and theatre types. Ensure you have a colourful scarf nonchalantly thrown around your neck and a fedora positioned low on your head and you’ll fit right in.


Destination Info

The Grahamstown Festival is a must-see. It combines a comfortable, folky, community atmosphere with the excitement of creative passion and cutting-edge theatrical innovation. Make sure you give it a visit!