Yiimimangaliso The Mysteries

Mark Dornford-May and Charles Hazlewood
Garrick Theatre
(2009)

Production photo

The fusion of an old English community performance tradition, The Mystery Cycle of plays, and an African aesthetic makes for a heady evening. The storyline is familiar and that is just as well, since the text is written in a combination of five languages without surtitles.

For most, the English will provide enough indications to support the sections spoken in Latin, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu with one of the delights the chance to hear, if not understand a large, talented cast speaking and singing in their own languages.

The evening starts at the beginning of Genesis with a surprise since God (as well as her only son) is played by a woman, Pauline Malefane. It is often suggested that theatre directors think themselves omnipotent but it is not every one that confirms their opinion by casting themselves into not one but two divine roles. To be fair, the calm, dominating Miss Malefane is actually co-music director, while one of the play's adaptors Mark Dornford-May directs.

The early sequences are distinguished by the battle between the still, powerful God and her explosive bad angel counterpart Lucifer, excitingly rendered by the lively Noluthando Bogwana, an actress who gets to wear fantastic red biker's leathers after an unfortunate start, sinking into a literally fiery hell.

The strength and weakness of this adaptation is that it is highly episodic. At its best, particularly in the Noah's Ark sequence led by the larger-than-life Zamile Gantana and featuring herds of invisible animals that you would almost swear that you had seen, the evening can be simultaneously meaningful and hilarious.

The style of this Isango Portobello Company, which originally produced Yiimimangaliso The Mysteries over here in 2002 and subsequently had such a success with the pairing of The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo) and A Christmas Carol (Ikrismas Kherol) relies on variety.

The large cast can not only act in five languages but sing beautifully, create percussion on the cheapest of non-instruments and produce athletic dance to fill in the gaps. They even manage large sections of beautiful physical theatre and 10 foot high puppets portraying the innocent Adam and Eve.

The Old Testament chugs along nicely leading up to Abraham's attempted sacrifice of Isaac. This is followed by about 25 generations of speeded up biblical begetting that projects us into the New Testament.

The Jesus story is told with equal invention, the dancing disciples perhaps being the most memorable sequence, prior to an unexpectedly solemn Crucifixion and Resurrection.

Contemporary life in Africa is nodded at as the Romans give up their traditional garb for the kind of military attire worn by dictators who usually hold office for around a fortnight until the next coup, and throughout one is never allowed to forget that this company delights in its African origins.

While some of the biblical visions did not quite hit their targets, often because of language problems, Yiimimangaliso The Mysteries remains an unforgettable experience for anybody that has some idea of the Bible and enjoys the exuberance of African performance.

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Reviewer: Philip Fisher