as british as a watermelon

mandla rae
Black Gold Arts Festival and Contact, Switchflicker Productions/Jayne Compton
Contact, Manchester

as british as a watermelon Credit: Benjamin Liddell
as british as a watermelon Credit: Benjamin Liddell
as british as a watermelon Credit: Benjamin Liddell

Returning to the city centre is still a bit tentative after COVID. Walking towards Contact along Oxford Road, am initially puzzled by shapes reflected off a gigantic glittering heart, spinning spotlights, neon slogans, a gaudy and noisy billboard and other displays before realising they are part of the ‘Corridor of Light’ initiative. This mile-long celebration of images and sound seems a welcome return of Manchester’s swagger.

As watermelons are not native to the UK, one had assumed the title of mandla rae’s performance piece is intended to reflect the alienation and displacement experienced by immigrants and refugees. Actually, that theme is not included in as british as a watermelon. Watermelons, on the other hand, are a central feature.

The fruits are a representation of comfort: cuddled and admired like a child. They also serve to allow cathartic expression of anger, being stabbed and smashed, or to represent past rituals with mandla rae bathing in their juice. They also allow mandla rae to show regret at displays of anger with guilt and an urge to repair any damage caused: every time a watermelon is smashed, an effort is made to put it back together again.

Credits for the show are so aching up-to-date as to be obscure. If the ’Visual Collaborator’ fulfils the same role as a stage director then Graham Clayton-Chance ought to point out to the softly spoken mandla rae audibility is an issue with the show. This is particularly unfortunate during a key speech where the point is made baptising a Zimbabwean child with the very English name of ‘Bridget’ is a clear acceptance of colonisation. But then mandla rae is not immune to this influence, being initially incapable of pronouncing the name chosen as a replacement.

Religion hangs heavy over the show; mandla rae’s love of storytelling originated with the Bible, key sections of which are analysed during the performance, which opens with a reverential recitation of The Lord’s Prayer. There is the stark statement mandla rae has forgiven others but not God. Michael Hankin’s skeletal set resembles a child’s sketch with a hastily drawn window and door. However, considering how often mandla rae stands in the latter addressing the audience, it could just as well be a confessional.

The narrative of the show is not linear; mandla rae admits from the start to being a liar and to choosing not to remember certain things. It becomes, therefore, a series of snapshots pulled from memory—recalling the origin of scars or envying families who did not have to constantly move and could, therefore, consider their house to be a home.

Some of the more disturbing aspects of as british as a watermelon are unexplained. A knife is occasionally run in a sensual manner along arms and legs as if contemplating self-mutilation. The show, therefore, raises questions rather than offers answers and allows the audience to experience a chaotic background and the resolution of conflict with parents and authority figures to establish a unique personality.

Reviewer: David Cunningham