Conclusive proof that the story of God circumnavigates his creation and blows away cultural, ethnic and geographical boundaries is to be found in this high-energy theatrical celebration.
The Mysteries follows the well-known pattern of the Bible as Christians perceive it - inspired as it is by the Chester Mystery Plays performed in that most English of cities since medieval times. Yet such is the passion, the exuberance, the joy exuded by this quite remarkable South African company that it could just as easily be applied to the Koran, the teachings of Bhuddism or the Torah and Talmud of Judaism.
The Mysteries' seamless mixture of the four main languages of the Cape serve to reiterate the Everyman view of religion - the way to steer the path of good over evil, touching lives positively along the way. And this is a religious celebration in its purest form - the type of worship that could have been celebrated 5000, 2000, 200 years ago.
On the simplest of sets, scaffolding surrounding a raked wooden stage, the company use what nature has given them - a quite remarkable set of voices, spine-tingling music, those emotive languages and, in a modern concession to durability, oil drums, steel pipes and sheets of metal in place of the trees and plants from which the first instruments would have been made. But of amplification, there is none. Instead, the richness of the voices rings around the walls and, for all I know, carries halfway to Heaven.
There are some wonderful surprises, too: the birth of Adam from a sandy grave beneath the stage, the fiery incarnation of hell, the creation of the Ark from nothing more than a piece of fencing trellis. But it's the feeling of sheer spontaneity of performance that sweeps you up and carries you right along with it.
The musical numbers are as culturally diverse as the language, from the Latin of "Gaudete" through "You Are My Sunshine" to the irresistible heartbeat rhythms of the African plains. They perfectly complement the action, and the heartrending plainsong which accompanies the crucifixion will remain with me for a very long time.
The cast is led from the front by the charismatic Vumile Normanyama as God/Jesus and Andries Mbali as his nemesis Lucifer. Special mention, too, for Sibusiso Ziqubu as Noah and Ruby Mthethwa as Mary Magdalene, but really this is the definitive ensemble show stunningly orchestrated by creator-director Mark Dornford-May and musical director and fellow creator Charles Hazelwood.
- John Lawson (reviewed at Norwich's Theatre Royal)
Note: The following review dates from February 2002 and this production's previous run at the West End's Queen's Theatre.
Umoja may have been forced to suspend its run at the Shaftesbury, but South African theatre is still widely represented in London, with the one-woman confessional The Syringa Tree at the National and the political drama The Island continuing at the Old Vic. Now, joining them after a sell-out run at Wilton's Music Hall last summer, comes The Mysteries, a massive undertaking featuring a cast of some 40 talented and totally dedicated people.
Told in multiple and distinctive African languages and rhythms, it's good that we know these stories already, since it' would not otherwise always be easy to follow. If Cole Porter were around, he might be advising us, "Brush up your bible, start quoting it now". The vibrancy and uniqueness of this enterprise, however, is to see these familiar tales - from Adam and Eve to the Crucifixion - so beautifully distilled through the eyes of a totally different culture.
A raked wooden stage is mostly bare but for a few scaffolding poles, with a ramp projecting into the stalls. In so doing with such naked simplicity, it honours the origins of the Mystery plays themselves, which were originally a kind of medieval street theatre. There's no denying, either, the integrity or gusto with which the company commit themselves to it.
There's also a theatrical naivety to The Mysteries that I don't want to patronise because it is so clearly born of real sincerity. However, it has to be admitted that the show - conceived and created by director Mark Dornford-May and musical director Charles Hazlewood - looks a little lost on a West End stage. For me, that may partly be because it has to compete with the memory of Bill Bryden's three-part Yorkshire version of The Mysteries that was one of the landmarks of the National's time on the South Bank.
But in the exhilarating moments when this Mysteries gives us the authentically soaring musical heartbeat of Africa, there's also no resisting it, either. Thank goodness, too, that it's not playing at the Shaftesbury, or it would be upsetting the neighbours again.
As it is, I'm told that there is some sound seepage problems to the Gielgud next door, where Humble Boy is playing. When Maggie Smith was doing Lettice and Lovage on Broadway at a theatre that backed onto another housing a loud gospel musical, she reportedly asked her stage manager to do something about it. He suggested hanging some blacks. Dame Maggie is famously said to have replied, "Don't you think that would be going a little too far?" I hope Felicity Kendal doesn't find herself faced with the same dilemma.
- Mark Shenton