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.
God really is a woman after all. And the all-drumming, all-dancing township spectacular, spoken and sung in English and several African tongues, looks far less amateurish in the cosy Garrick than it did in the vasty Queen’s.
Mark Dornford-May’s production for the Cape Town company Isango Portobello forges an impressive theatrical consistency between the folkish simplicity of the Chester cycle – much more of which is now delightfully comprehensible – and the African shanty-town rituals which meld into an allegory of a military junta, with riot shields and battle fatigues.
Dominating all is the amazing Pauline Malefane, who was Queen of the Night in the company’s stunning, marimba version of The Magic Flute at the Young Vic last year. She has graduated from playing the Virgin Mary in The Mysteries to the top dog deity, presiding over the Old Testament stories with serene grandeur in robes and rich vocalizations.
The ladder is her throne, her angels a cluster of chanting, swaying gospel singers backed up by the townsfolk in headscarves and boiler suits on a simple stage of scaffolding and corrugated iron, with a long ramp leading into the front stalls.
Lucifer in a red leather suit and basque – Noluthando Boqwana is a sensational cat woman, slithering as the snake in Eden and crowing triumphantly as Peter’s nemesis at the moment of betrayal – is cast down in fire and is thereafter a permanent presence of pure evil, “wicked” in the ways of the devil and Michael Jackson.
Malefane’s God despairs at the slaughter of the innocents and brilliantly conveys – in the hiatus of the interval, it seems – her determination to come on down as Jesus, which she does by discarding her head-piece and robes and leading a dance of new faith with the fishermen apostles.
The ladder becomes her cross, the crucifixion staged as a moving lament for mankind before, with the Resurrection, and the forgiveness of Peter, the dance can be renewed in joyous fellowship.
It’s a fantastic appropriation of the Mysteries, easily the best since Bill Bryden’s National Theatre version, 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.