South Africa's award-winning Isango Portobello Theatre Company made a welcome return to the capital last week (15 September 2009, previews from 11 September), bringing a new version of its acclaimed take on the Chester Mystery plays, first seen in London back in 2001, to the Garrick Theatre.
The Mysteries - Yiimimangaliso comes care of the same team behind last year’s Whatsonstage.com and Olivier Award-winning South African version of The Magic Flute, which had a West End run at the Duke of York’s theatre following its UK premiere at the Young Vic (See News, 19 Dec 2007). Pauline Malefane leads the 33-strong ensemble in the roles of God and Jesus, while Mark Dornford-May directs.
Critics went wild for The Mysteries, echoing the response the show received back in 2001. Director Dornford-May enjoyed plaudits ranging from "uniquely inventive" to "visionary", while his star (and musical director) Pauline Malefane was described variously as "spellbinding" and "formidable". All told, with its raft of four and five star ratings, it ranks as one of the most critically successful West End shows so far this year, making it a definite must see before it finishes on 3 October.
Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) - "This pulsating South African version of the Chester Mystery plays is improved beyond recognition from its seasons in the Wilton’s Music Hall and the West End seven years ago … Mark Dornford-May’s production … forges an impressive theatrical consistency between the folkish simplicity of the Chester cycle … and the African shanty-town rituals which meld into an allegory of a military junta, with riot shields and battle fatigues … It’s a fantastic appropriation of the Mysteries … and a great musical explosion on bongos, steel drums and oil canisters, with an untreated, unamplified score ranging from gospel and street music to 'You Are My Sunshine' when Noah and his family sight land at last after the floods. Irresistible.”
Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (five stars) - “Part of the excitement of his production, in which English rubs up against Latin as well as Xhosa and Afrikaans, is its bold physicality … Dornford-May’s direction is nothing short of visionary. Every member of the company he has assembled seems precisely committed to his cause. The actors … enchant with their mixture of gravity and comedy. Under the circumstances it seems invidious to train attention on particular performers, but Noluthando Boqwana is a fiery delight as the leather-clad Lucifer, Zamile Gantana brings sunny buffoonery to the role of Noah, and Pauline Malefane, besides being one of the show’s musical directors, is spellbinding as the Creator and then as Jesus … The Mysteries is total theatre, an event that affirms one’s faith in the form. It is an exhilarating sensory feast - a timeless narrative, conveyed in a pungently modern style.”
Michael Billington in the Guardian (four stars) - "God and Jesus are now female in the formidable shape of Pauline Malefane. Lucifer has had a gender change, too, and is a svelte figure in lacy basque and PVC pants. Otherwise, this South African version of the Chester mystery cycle, played in seven languages, is very much a recreation of the Mark Dornford-May production that took London by storm in 2001 ... This medieval encapsulation of Bible stories is a great piece of popular art couched in language of beautiful simplicity: Abraham's injunction to Isaac, 'make thee ready, my darling, for we must do a little thing', always strikes me as one of the most heart-stopping lines in all drama … But I suspect there is a more basic reason why this production works so powerfully. In our own predominantly secular society, we are less familiar with the Bible than the latest Dan Brown variation … the actors are performing assigned roles and the audience become day-return devotees. But, watching the 33 actors in this all-black company, I felt that they were telling the story out of inner conviction."
Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph (five stars) - "In these dire days of drift, depression and deceit, this South African production of the Chester medieval mystery plays shines like a good deed in a naughty world. It explodes on to the stage with a glorious mixture of faith, spirituality, joy and humanity, refreshing the parts other shows cannot reach and reminding us that there is a life beyond Gordon Brown’s wretched, bossy Britain … The show’s secret ingredient is the music, glorious township singing from a cast of more than 30 that soars with joy, faith and passion, ranging from spirituals and hymns to township jive and even 'Singin’ in the Rain' and 'You Are My Sunshine' during the Flood. Pounding percussion is provided by actors beating the hell out of oil drums and upturned plastic dustbins … There are also scenes that are almost too painful to watch - most notably the Massacre of the Innocents, so redolent of the barbarism of Africa at its worst, and the savage Crucifixion sequence. Shows as moving and uplifting as this only arrive once in a blue moon. You leave The Mysteries feeling blessed."
Julie Carpenter in the Daily Express (four stars) - "Call me a heathen cynic but I was not particularly looking forward to this South African musical version of the Chester Mystery Plays, the famous cycle of medieval dramas which aimed at teaching the peasants their religious stories. All credit, then, must go to this vibrant, colourful and unusually powerful production by the Isango Portobello company for its ability to win over atheists like me ... Director Mark Dornford-May, a Brit, has come up with some uniquely inventive ideas, including creating Adam and Eve in effigy as giant straw puppets, and he provides some wonderfully fun comedic moments: Noah is a contented, full-bellied bloke dressed in a giant Edwardian-style swimsuit who warbles 'Singing In The Rain' while an angel, white wings sprouting from his labourer-style hard hat, recreates the flood with a watering can."
Sarah Hemming in the Financial Times (four stars) - "It’s hard today to capture the mix of rough stagecraft, easy familiarity and transcendent faith that characterise the medieval mystery plays, but Mark Dornford-May’s remarkable South African staging of The Mysteries (Yiimimangaliso) achieves it ... Simplicity, passion and cheeky humour drive the show ... There are points when the energy drops and others when the music drowns out the main speaker. Those unfamiliar with the Bible might be at sea on occasions. But this is a wonderful, uplifting production and a great credit to Isango Portobello theatre company from Cape Town."