Woza Albert

Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon

Riverside Studios

(2002)

Review by Philip Fisher

This two-hander about the evils of Apartheid in South Africa was originally produced by the very influential Market Theatre of Johannesburg. This production is distinguished by tremendous performances from both Siyabonga Twala and Errol Ndotho. They play dozens of parts that involve them in using many skills - acting, mime, singing and dance. Their main strength is in creating images using a few words and actions. These images (such as a human helicopter and a one-armed bandit) can be funny while others continue to haunt viewers long after they leave the theatre.

The play was written twenty years ago and, like The Island, it was unpopular with the Government in South Africa and must have put its authors in danger of incarceration. Like that play, though, it also helped to inform the world of the evils of the regime in that country and played its own small part in the ultimately successful movement for change.

The first part of the play sets the scene. It looks at a wide range of characters in South Africa at the beginning of the 1980s. It pulls no political punches as it attacks the pass laws that prevented Black people from moving freely. Similarly, it sketches in a few short minutes the semi-slavery that was imposed on manual workers by bosses who could threaten them with the sack if they got too independent.

There is a rich vein of humour even in the worst adversity. The use of pink clown's noses to distinguish the elite Afrikaners - including the Prime Minister - from the subservient Blacks is a stroke of genius. It demonstrates the simplicity of Sello Make ka Ncube's production that uses nothing more than a few clothes, two crates and great lighting from Michael Maxwell to enhance the efforts of the two actors.

The short, impressionistic sketches begin to move from background scenes of generally downtrodden life to interviews with individuals about the impending visit of Morena. This is another name for Jesus Christ who, it appears, has decided to inaugurate his second coming by flying to South Africa courtesy of South African Airlines.

Among other interviewees, there is a toothless old man trying to thread a needle. He is perfectly and hilariously rendered by Twala who reveals a rich gift for mime. This high point is almost matched by the first interview with the Saviour (Ndotho) as he gets off the plane. His unassuming demeanour seems right but is eventually explained by a case of mistaken identity.

The play becomes considerably darker and more resonant during the second half. Now Jesus is in the country and his life is replayed in the Apartheid context. He is first welcomed then imprisoned. Like Steve Biko, he gets the chance to fly from a tower block window but unlike him, survives. The next stop is Robben Island, mirroring Nelson Mandela amongst so many more. His escape is easy as he walks back across the bay to Cape Town. This retelling of a familiar story in a new context is quite devastating in the way that it sheds light on both the Bible and the Republic.

This play may have less impact in a South African context in 2002 than when it was written. Nevertheless, the points that it makes about an evil society are still relevant around the world today. This revival is therefore very welcome for that reason as much as for the efforts of its two stars.