by Steven Lowe from the novel by Robert Tressell adapted by Mark Dornford-May.

Hackney Empire 291 Mare Street E8 1EJ In rep to 3 June 2012.
5pm 3 June.
7.30pm 23, 24, 26, 30, 2 June
Runs 2hr 5min One interval.

TICKETS: 020 8985 2424.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 19 May.

Toughest show in this season still has its reason.
A timeless and universal Greek classic, a popular opera in a new setting (something usual enough in opera houses nowadays); it’s not hard to see the place of Aesop’s Fables and La Bohème in this Hackney season from South Africa’s Isango ensemble.

But why a reworking of Robert Tressell’s pre-World War I novel about house-painters on England’s south coast, showing the inequities of capitalism? It seems Tressell lived in South Africa in his twenties, roughly through the 1890s. He came from Ireland, married a South African, and only on returning to England did he come to the setting of his sole, unfinished novel.

He probably picked up his politics in South Africa too, and there’s a link with Isango’s repertoire companion-piece La Bohème, in that the author died of tuberculosis in his early forties. There are reputedly links in several names from the novel to Johannesburg and Cape Town, so this relocation is a kind of homecoming.

A similar direct knowledge is probably needed to unlock some of the cultural coding in Mark Dornford-May’s adaptation from Stephen Lowe’s 1978 version, like the red and white-spotted jackets the workers adopt for a kind of reverse Black and White Minstrel Show troupe they form for the annual works’ outing, entertaining the black-garbed and hatted employers with songs, including “our” national anthem, which turns out to be ‘God Save the King’.

The exaggerated onstage conducting of this, controlling volume as the bosses listening control men’s lives, is one of the production’s broader strokes. Behind it all is the cultural oppression signified in the names. For while the bosses keep their own, the Africans are all known by an English name.

Tressell’s key scene showing the ‘Great Money Trick’, or how money creates poverty, is clear and pertinent – as is later material where it needs to be remembered where and when this was written, for it might be a direct response to England’s social situation today.

Of the current repertoire, this is probably the most challenging, reflecting Tressell’s book. But it shows a music-theatre ensemble tackling satire and political ideas with confidence and humour.

Nkosi Songo (Solomon): Mhlekazi ‘Whawha’ Moisiea.
Mncedisi Isaac): Zanele Mbatha.
Godfrey: Mandisi Dyantyis.
Philanbandane Mgqaliso (Phillip): Simphiwe Mayeki.
Raymond Crass: Zamile Gantana.
Zingqi Ggogga (Joseph): Sonwabo Ntshata.
Mlilo Zikhali (Samson): Katiergo Mmusi.
Mbuso Sebe (George): Ayanda Eleki.
Mvuyisi Ntonga (Josi): Luvo Tamba.
Bonginkosi Silo (Baden): Luvo Rasmeni.
Bongani Silo (Powell): Tukela Pepeteka.
Dambile Mdoda (Arthur): Thobile Dyasi.
Mr Hunter: Noluthando Bogwana.
Mr Rushton: Nobulumko Mngxekeza.
Mr Sweater: Bongiwe Mapassa.
Sonto Songo (Minnie): Pauline Malefane.
Maids: Busisiwe Ngejane, Zoleka Mpotsha, Nontuthuzelo Ntshona.
Farm Workers: Puleng Jackals, Zodwa Mrasi, Nontusa Louw.

Director: Mark Dornford-May.
Designer: Dan Watkins.
Lighting: Chloe Kenward.
Music Directors: Mandisi Dyantyis, Pauline Malefane.
Choreographer/Associate director: Lungelo Ngamlana.
Voice coach/Text interpretation: Lesley Manim.
Costume: Leopald Senekal.

2012-05-21 02:12:39

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