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Brief Encounter With … Pauline Malefane

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Pauline Malefane is a South African opera singer, actor, screenwriter and muscial director. She was last in London in 2007/08 when Isango Portobello's Olivier Award-winning The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo played in repertory with A Christmas Carol – Ikrismas Kherol at the Young Vic before transferring to the West End's Duke of York’s Theatre.

Last year she won the Best Film Actress Award for her performance in Son of Man at the South African Film and Television Awards. She also translated, co-wrote and starred in the award-winning film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha and was a featured soloist at the BBC proms in 2006. At the start of this year she became the first black African singer to perform in the New Year’s Concert in Berlin with the Berlin Philharmonic under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle.

Malefane is currently starring in and musical directing a new touring production of The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso. Adapted and directed by British Director Mark Dornford-May and performed by Cape Town based Isango Portobello Theatre Company, the musical has been seen by over 250,000 people worldwide since it first came to London in 2002. It returns to the capital this month, running at the Garrick Theatre from 15 September to 3 October (previews from 11 October).

What are The Mysteries?
The Mystery plays are medieval dramas drawn from the Bible, from the creation through to the death of Jesus Christ. Obviously it’s not the whole Bible but they cover the fall of Lucifer, Cain and Able, Noah, the birth of Jesus, and Jesus as a young man until his death. It’s basically the Bible but told in a very simple and entertaining way, and we present them from an African perspective, with music, dancing and a mixture of languages including English, Xhosa, Afrikaans, Tswana and Zulu.

Are there any major changes from the production you brought to London in 2002?
Quite a few, I think. Last time, God and Jesus were played by a man but now the parts are played by myself. Lucifer was a man in the original, again she’s now a woman. But it’s not a matter of us changing it because we felt like changing it, we work with the company we have so we make it fit around the talents we have. And obviously we don’t want to do the same production because we’d probably be very bored - we started the last production in Cape Town in 2001 and toured it right the way through to 2005. So I think it was important for us to make a few changes. But you know theatre. You can give the same script to different people and it’ll change automatically because the understanding and the ability changes. The music is completely different now too.

Is it a challenge handling the musical direction as well as performing?
It is, but it’s a very good experience because I think one needs those kinds of experiences to grow as an artist, as a singer. Also, it’s not like I’m faced with this huge challenge by myself. In the rehearsal room we come up with things as a company and people throw in ideas, we workshop things, we sit down and say “okay, we need a piece or a song in this scene, this is the setting , this is the feel”. We then go out in groups then come back and present it, and the director will tell us what they think.

It’s important for us to use our brains because most people think that as an actor or actress you just go on stage and say the words. It’s important to be able to think 'why am I doing this? What does it mean?'. You find that sometimes people don’t want to ask 'what is this and why?' if they don’t understand the text.

Is it nice to be coming back to London?
Of course - I always look forward to coming to London. It's one of the best theatre capitals, and has some of the most important stages of all. Coming to London and presenting our work is always a challenge - it’s an experience, it’s exciting, but you also get very worried and nervous. But I’ve noticed that British critics are very fair. When they don’t like something, they say. And even if they do like it, they’ll write any reservations they have. It’s not a case of loving it or not, they’ll say “if they improve that or this” and I find it very honest. Compared to South Africa, the experience is very different - but there are infinitely more theatres in London than there are in Cape Town.

Are there audience differences as well as critical ones?
Oh God, yes! We don't tend to get as many numbers in South Africa. We’ve had days when you walk on stage and just think “could you come back tomorrow?”. But for me, when I look at the audience at home, I find so many different mixtures of South African culture, and that's so exciting. Not just in terms of both black and white people but also in terms of religion. There would be Muslims in the audience and you'd worry if they’re going to like it because it’s such a Christian show, but then you look during the show and they’re enjoying it. It’s not about being Christian or about being young or old; it’s the fact that South Africa is being represented. And that’s what we’re striving for, to bring theatre to the people but also to bring people into the theatre, showing that theatre is for everyone.

You’ve enjoyed a very successful phase in your career in recent years, what have been the highlights?
I can’t remember! No, I was very lucky because after we took The Mysteries to Hong Kong I had an engagement with the Berliner Philharmonica which was the most frightening experience of my life. Since 2001, I’ve been performing alongside big acting companies. They’ve been there when I’m doing Carmen or The Magic Flute and even when I’m by myself on stage there have been people around me, people I know, colleagues. And then in Berlin I was by myself, totally. All of a sudden I had to grow up and be an opera singer and to me it was terrifying!

I kept on reminding myself that I wouldn’t have stage management calling me up from my room telling me what to do, I had to look after myself. It was confusing and exciting at the same time. But ultimately, singing and performing is my love, I love doing it and I want to do it the best I can, and I think that’s what kept me going. It was a wonderful experience though, and they looked after me very well. But I won't deny it's nice to be surrounded by a big company again!

- Pauline Malefane was speaking to Theo Bosanquet

The Mysteries - Yiimimangaliso is at the Garrick Theatre from 15 September to 3 October (previews from 11 September).


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