Posts Tagged ‘Isango Ensemble’

Last month I saw Akram Kahn’s Xenos, a solo dance piece at Sadler’s Wells Theatre which brilliantly highlighted the forgotten soldiers from the Indian sub-continent who fought in the First World War. That was co-commissioned and co-produced by 14-18 NOW, who this month co-commission and co-produce two pieces about the forgotten role of Africans in that war.

The first, The Head & The Load, was a performance art piece from William Kentridge in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The stage, screen, and indeed the audience, ran the full length of the flat part of the space. Collages and film footage were projected onto the screen, with extraordinary silhouettes and shadows created by the people moving on stage, so big no-one could see it all without moving their head. On stage there were actors and dancers playing scenes, music from bands and singers, large objects (some containing sets) moving across it. It tells the story of the Africans who were porters and carriers in WWI. I can’t say I understood where every detail fitted the theme – I’m not sure you are meant to, as it’s more an intuitive piece than a literal one – but it was a captivating and moving visual and aural spectacle.

At NST City Southampton, South Africa’s Isango Ensemble, one of my favourite international companies (this is the eighth show I’ve seen), told the story of the ship SS Mendi, which sank in the English Channel at the end of a long voyage from Cape Town, taking African men conscripted to help in the trenches. A simple, sharply raked wooden platform represented the deck of the ship and all other locations. We see the men recruited by a white military officer before they set sail. On board, there are deaths by disease & suicide, intertribal conflict and maltreatment, before the ship is in collision with a much bigger one so close to the end of their voyage. It concludes by examining why the other ship didn’t stop to help, resulting in more than six hundred deaths. As always with Isango, singing and percussion thrillingly animate the storytelling, and the show was deeply moving.

These were two more enthralling memorials to forgotten participants in World War I, in a truly wonderful series of events by this 14-18 NOW initiative, which has highlighted and served this centenary so well.

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If the nickname ‘The Welsh Les Mis’ hadn’t already been taken by My Land’s Shore (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2017/02/14/my-lands-shore), soon to have its Welsh stage premiere (www.mylandsshoremusical.com), it might be applied to this, though it’s more Les-Mis-meets-Oliver! Whilst half of Wales seemed to be watching rugby at the Millennium Stadium, the other half seemed packed into the Wales Millennium Centre last Saturday afternoon. We travelled from London and the journey was rewarded; there’s much to enjoy here.

It’s set in Cardiff docks at the beginning of the 20th century. This is the busiest port in the world, exporting coal to fuel industry worldwide, run by the world’s richest man, the Marquess of Bute, who lives in Cardiff Castle. It’s a backdrop of child labour, prostitution, the birth of trade unions and suffragettes in one of the world’s first melting pots, nicknamed Tiger Bay by Portuguese sailors. There are several story strands against this backdrop. The Marquess is obsessed with finding his former mistress Mary, who he believes has a son by him. His harbour-master is pursuing shop girl Rowena, but he’s also feeding his boss’ obsession and exploiting the workers and children. African labourer Temba is also attracted to Rowena, and he has a score to settle with O’Rourke.

It’s a blend of fact and fiction, and Michael Williams’ book needs some work to tighten it and shorten it, but it’s a good story for a musical drama. Though Daf James’ score sometimes seems derivative (you can hear echoes of Les Mis, even Sondheim’s Into the Woods) it has some cracking tunes and rousing choruses and we’re in Wales, so the singing is glorious. The producers, writers and directors have lots of experience, but not so much in musical theatre, and I felt they could have done with some help from someone who had, to turn a good show into a great one.

I loved Anna Fleischle’s design, dominated by a ship’s prow with similar metallic screens that move to create different settings, shadows created by Joshua Carr’s lighting often playing on them atmospherically. Melly Still & Max Barton marshal their cast of over 40 very well, though I felt dance was over-used, sometimes inappropriately or incongruously.

John Owen-Jones is a commanding presence as the Marquess, but the part wasn’t really big enough for his talents. Noel Sullivan was hugely impressive as harbour-master O’Rourke, as was recent RWCMD graduate Vikki Bebb as Rowena, both with superb vocals. Dom Hartley-Harris gave a passionate performance as Temba and local girl Suzanne Packer was terrific as Marisha. The show is a co-production with Cape Town Opera in their ongoing partnership with WMC and Busisiwe Ngejane and Luvo Rasemeni as Klondike Ellie and Fezile respectively, both veterans of the wonderful Isango Ensemle, continue in the roles they created in the Cape Town premiere.

Well worth the trip to Wales!

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I’ve seen and loved every Isango show that’s visited these shores over the last fifteen years and this is no exception. After three operas, adaptations of Shakespeare & Dickens and The Mysteries (three times!), this true story of a Somalian refugee is very different to what came before. Seeing it on the day when the Calais refugee camp was cleared gave it even greater resonance.

Asad loses his mother aged 8 during inter-tribal conflict in his home country. With no family to look after him, he heads for Kenya where he is ‘adopted’ by Yindy in a refugee camp, until she obtains papers to enter the US, leaving him alone once more. From here his route takes him to Ethiopia and on to South Africa, where his cousin takes him into his township convenience shop business.

In South Africa, the backlash against Somalians results in the death of his cousin and continual threats to Asad. He finds himself in a refugee camp once more, where the inter-tribal conflict amongst the Somalis takes us full circle. Asad defends a Somalian woman with a young child whom he subsequently marries and obtains papers for the three of them to enter the US.

It’s based on the book of the same title by Jonny Steinberg, who interviewed Asad intermittently over two years to obtain his story, scenes of which bookend the show. Asad says he won’t read the book as he doesn’t want to bring back memories of those he has lost. Isango’s trademark music adds much, played on wooden marimbas (fond memories of their extraordinary marimba overture to The Magic Flute!), makeshift percussion, hands and feet and glorious rousing vocals.

Despite the tragic nature of Asad’s story, it is an uplifting, hopeful evening and its great to have them back.


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My relationship with this captivating show goes back to 2001 when its South African company first brought it to the wonderful Wilton’s Music Hall. It’s been round the world a few times since then, but now it’s back in the equally wonderful Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for an all too brief visit and its just as thrilling.

Isango take the Chester cycle as their starting point. We go from creation and Adam & Eve through the nativity and the resurrection to the last judgement. With colourful costumes and a few props, it zips along through some 25 scenes in less than two hours playing time. They vary in length and tone, with the Noah scene hugely funny, the heart-breaking slaughter of the innocents and a deeply moving crucifixion. It is performed in Xhosa, Zulu, Afrikaans and Latin as well as English, but it doesn’t seem to matter – these stories are well known. There is glorious unaccompanied singing throughout. Both God and Satan are women, the latter in red bodice and torn leather trousers cast into the stage pit! Just nine performers create this piece, led by the incomparable Pauline Malefane.

Isango have their roots and their hearts in the townships and music permeates everything they do. They’ve given us brilliant re-interpretations of operas like Carmen, La Boheme and The Magic Flute (I will never forget that opera’s iconic overture played on wooden xylophones) and made a major contribution to Globe to Globe with their terrific Venus & Adonis. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is the perfect venue for them and for this. Don’t miss this truly uplifting experience.

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I love seeing Shakespeare in other languages. I got the addiction when I saw Yukio Ninagawa’s Japanese (Shogun period – cherry blossom time) Macbeth at the Edinburgh Festival in 1985. Lots of other Ninagawa Shakespeare’s  followed – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hamlet, Titus Andronicus, Coriolanus and a Kabuki Twelfth Night – plus a Swedish Hamlet at the NT. When the Globe first opened, we got one visiting company each year, starting with a terrific Zulu Macbeth, a Japanese Comedy of Errors, Cuban Tempest, Brazilian Romeo & Juliet and a kathakali King Lear from India. For some reason they then dried up……so how thrilled was I when The Globe announced 37 productions, each in a different language and a groundling season ticket for £100! Well, I was never going to get to them all (as a season ticket holder, you have to mostly do matinees) but I was going to do as many as I could.

The weather has not been kind in this first week, but I manged four out of seven, starting with the South African Venus & Adonis last weekend. The company that brought The Mysteries and Carmen to Wilton’s and Magic Flute and Christmas Carol to the Young Vic created a musical staging of the epic poem, with seven Venus’ passing their (wedding?) dress from one to the other like a baton in a relay. The singing was glorious, the staging captivating and their enthusiasm infectious. They were clearly thrilled and proud to be there and we shouted and cheered our appreciation.

Next up, Troilus & Cressida in Maori! Well, who’d have thought you could relocate it from ancient Greece to the ancient antipodes so successfully? Inter-Maori war instead of the Trojan wars and thrilling it was too. The kathakali King Lear showed how you could act with facial expressions – well, the Maoris did too, adding tongue and buttock acting for good measure! It was occasionally funny (Achilles lover was a Maori Mr Humphreys!) but mostly action-packed thrills. Another standing ovation (well, I was already standing, so I cheered) for another hugely talented bunch who seemed thrilled to be celebrating with us on Will’s birthday.

The Russian Measure for Measure was a complete contrast but a great production nonetheless. They roughed up the stage with litter to create a decadent Vienna, the Duke and Angelo were played by the same actor, making the point (I think!) that the Duke’s lust for Isabella was no better than Angelo’s. The acting was brilliant and somehow the play made more sense to me in Russian than it ever has in English!

I suspect the Greek Pericles was great if you understood Greek. I knew the play (I’ve seen them all) and again I read a synopsis beforehand and the synopsis provided for each scene on screens in the theatre, but the storytelling style of this production meant you really did miss the dialogue. The lack of any ‘production’ as such put all the focus on the words that you couldn’t understand. A disappointment, I’m afraid.

Sadly, the weather got worse as the week went on. It really was too wet to brave the Swahili Merry Wives on Wednesday afternoon. The expectation of an equally bad Friday put me off the Hindi Twelfth Night, though it looks like the forecasters (80% chance of rain!) got that wrong, and by Sunday, still raining, my exhaustion suggested a day at home to recharge my batteries – so I missed the National Theatre of China’s Richard III. Fingers crossed for the coming week’s Korean Dream, Italian Julius, Cantonese Titus, Palestinian RII, Hip Hop Othello and the world’s newest country – South Sudan – giving us Cymbeline. I wonder how many I’ll make…….

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