Anyone who saw the irresistible, inspirational Isango Ensemble from Cape Town in their productions of The Mysteries at Wilton’s Music Hall and The Magic Flute at the Young Vic will need no second bidding to high-tail it to Hackney to catch their latest work.
Mark Dornford-May’s three new productions, playing in repertory, all claim South African affinities with classics of Western culture, most remarkably, perhaps, in the case of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists; Stephen Lowe’s adaptation is newly harnessed to the author Robert Tressell’s early experiences in the Cape Colony and Transvaal Republic of the 1890s.
So, the tale of the building workers in a southern English coastal town is relocated in the corrugated iron and scaffolding permanent set of a South African township and interspersed with a native variety show of white-faced chorines singing “We’re in the money” and tail-coated vaudevillians soft-shoe-shuffling the rudely ambiguous information that “their feets too big.”
The connection of all that with the socialist imperatives of the narrative line is a bit fuzzy, and the show feels a bit of a jumble, though there’s one stunning moment when the completed decorating work is revealed as the fully lit interior of Frank Matcham’s glorious Hackney theatre with “too much red.”
Ragged is also the one piece produced without marimbas (the large wooden-framed xylophones) and steel drums – the wonderful singing is in this case a capella – that line the side of the thrust stage for Aesop’s Fables and La bohѐme.
The first is a glorified children’s show in which the enslaved Aesop (Luvo Rasemeni) breaks free thanks to the educative stories of the “humanised” animals: four hip, helmeted mine-worker ants; a pink-suited bobble-tailed booty-shaking hare (Zoleka Mpotsha) and a tortoise with her own home-made shell; a big fat boxing wolf; a cool cat fighting cock; a Rastafarian goat, and so on.
A golden Hermes (Busisiwe Ngejane) mediates between Aesop, the beautifully voiced chorale of the Oracle, his master Escallywags (Simphiwe Mayeki) and Zeus on high (Ayande Eleki). It’s a township pantomime, written by our own Peter Terson in association with the Ensemble, and it’s utterly charming.
In the Puccini, we re-encounter the glorious Pauline Malefane as Mimi – not a romantic consumptive, but another statistic in a too real contemporary death roll of Aids, tuberculosis and malaria victims.
The music sounds astonishing – unrecognisable, almost, in the second act in “Momu’s bar” – and, rather as the rock transposition in Rent in Greenwich Village – an impassioned expression of protest. Malefane, and her Rudolpho, or Lungelo (Mhlekazi “Whawha”), sing up a lyrical storm, and all the other “bohemians” – beggarly street-fighting folk, really – are sharply and humorously characterised.
The show is conducted at the side of the stage by Mandisi Dyantyis, who seems the natural embodiment of a miraculous marriage between township tragedy and a masterpiece of re-imagined operatic writing.