Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

The Mysteries

Conceived and created by Mark Dornford-May and Charles Hazlewood
Wilton's Music Hall Production
Theatre Royal, Newcastle - on tour
(2003)

To overcome the effects of travelling twelve miles by public transport on a windswept and freezing February evening requires something special in the way of a show. The Wilton's Music Hall production of The Mysteries, it has to be said, succeeds admirably.

Based primarily on the Chester cycle of plays, this is a South African version of the traditional Mysteries. It has a cast of 35 who usually speak in their mother tongue - one or other of the eleven "official" languages of South Africa, but mainly English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu - with music from the very wide South African tradition, ranging from the operatic to tribal chants, and African dance.

A recipe, one would think, for a confused and probably unintelligible Tower of Babel! But it wasn't so: the stories were clearly told, and variously deeply moving or hilariously funny. The music and dance - including a brilliant Africanised version of Gaudete, with dance - was sensitively and effectively used and carried the show along to a joyful and colourful conclusion which brought many in the audience to their feet.

It's very much an ensemble piece and it is almost a crime to single out individuals, but four stood out: Vumile Nomanyama, who played the dual role of God and Jesus, has tremendous stage presence and his transition from the demanding God of the Old Testament to the Jesus of the New - who could be just as hard at times, witness the cleansing of the Temple - was made easily and convincingly.

Andries Mbali as Lucifer has tremendous strengths as a character actor: from the serpent in the Garden of Eden to the Satan who tries to tempt Jesus in the wilderness, he could be, by turns, arrogant and hilariously funny. Humour, in fact, plays an important part in this production - as it should do, for the Mysteries were by no means reverential - and the master of it was Sibusiso "Otto" Ziqubu whose Noah was inspired. Lungelwa Blou (Mary, the mother of Jesus) impressed in a very different way. Far from the insipid caricature of so many religious plays, she also has a beautiful voice.

But to single out these four is really unfair, for the whole cast have a life and vitality, a sheer exuberance, which we don't often see on the British stage. The inventiveness of the staging, too, is a joy to behold. I have never seen the casting of Lucifer into hell done so well and when, as the flood waters receded and the Ark came to land, Noah and his family burst into You are my sunshine, the audience fell about!

If it comes to a theatre even reasonably close to you, see it - it's well worth the jounrey, even in the worst of the British winter!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan