by Peter Terson adapted by Mark Dornford-May.
Hackney Empire 291 Mare Street E8 1EJ In rep to 2 June 2012.
1.30pm 26 May.
2.30pm 30 May, 2 June.
Runs 1hr 50min One interval.
TICKETS: 020 8985 2424.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 19 May.
Fabulous Cape Town music-theatre company Isango Ensemble return with an eclectic trio of productions, bringing Black South African sounds and traditions to pieces from various places and times in Europe. Here Aesop gets the Isango treatment, based on a 1983 version by Peter Terson, itself a late call from the confidently democratic era of sixties and seventies British theatre.
Terson’s mood resonates well in this South African adaptation. Like a country learning to come to terms with freedom, Terson’s Aesop has a lot to learn, and heavenly messenger Hermes (a resplendently-robed Busisiwe Ngejane) comes from the celestial region of the scaffolding surrounding the stage to tell the slave he must earn freedom from his chains by learning from the animals.
So the fables here reflect on Aesop’s own life, as he gradually gains wisdom and progressively loses the chains. There’s a running-gag about the hare and tortoise (athletically energetic Zoleka Mpotsha, pausing to talk to spectators by the winning-post as her rival reaches the tape unnoticed, and shell-bearing, bespectacled Noluthando Boqwana) who dash and trudge respectively, a dashingly proud Cockerel in Tukela Pepeteka and the lumberingly thuggish Wolf of Zamile Gantana, plus a recurring quartet of ants with a sense of due dignity, among others.
And there’s a lovely put-down as the Ass is revealed behind the glorious lion-head with which Pauline Malefane’s character has tried to create an impression. It would be a dull Aesop who could not learn from all this activity, with its echoes of human behaviour.
Luvo Rasemeni’s Aesop is certainly not dull. He watches and learns, always eager and sincere, and by the end, having his own reward, he also helps the master who first had him bound, Simphiwe Mayeki’s proud-looking Escallywags, himself rewarded for success with gilded chains, to throw them away: chains are chains, however luxurious.
Every individual performer and instrument contributes to the joyous production. Those instruments are primarily six giant marimbas, whose percussive beat issues in unearthly liquid sounds accompanying action and sung moments.
It’s a joy throughout. The problem with this show? There are only three more performances in Hackney.
Escallywags: Simphiwe Mayeki.
Aesop: Luvo Rasemeni.
Hermes: Busisiwe Ngejane.
Dove: Puleng Jackals.
Hare: Zoleka Mpotsha.
Tortoise: Noluthando Boqwana.
Deer: Luvo Tamba.
Stork: Katiego Mmusi.
Wolf: Zamile Gantana.
Cockerel: Tukela Pepeteka.
Goat: Mandisi Dyantyis.
Swift: Thobile Dyasi.
Ass: Pauline Malefane.
Zeus: Ayanda Eleki.
Ants: Bongiwe Mapassa, Zanele Mbatha, Nobulumko Mngxekewa, Nontsusa Louw.
Oracles/Frogs/Snails/Turtles/Chickens: Nontuthuzelo Ntshona, Sonwabo Nshata, Zodwa Mrasi.
Director: Mark Dornford-May.
Designer: Dan Watkins.
Lighting: Chloe Kenward.
Music Directors: Mandisi Dyantyis, Pauline Malefane.
Choreographer/ Associate director: Lungelo Ngamlana.
Voice coach/test interpretation: Lesley Manim.
Costume: Leopald Senekal, Aja Marneweck.