Posts Tagged ‘Isango Ensemble’

Isango Ensemble’s “A Man of Good Hope” (Young Vic) and Philharmonia Orchestra accompanying Abel Gance’s “Napoleon”

November 10, 2016

Two mini-reviews for shows that are going to be hard to see, as one has only happened twice in five years and the other is coming to the end of its run and is fully sold out.

The night after an election in which a racist candidate pushed an anti-immigrant campaign seemed like an excellent time to see the Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope, about a Somali immigrant and refugee who goes to South Africa in search of a better life. The play was full of the outstanding singing, lively dancing, and endlessly cheerful marimba playing that marks the Isango Ensemble’s work (and strongly justifies the £35 ticket price, which to be honest nearly kept me from coming as I’m really struggling financially right now). But I’d just been listening to an NPR story on how Somali Muslim immigrants are being demonized across the US and I was feeling particularly curious about what the truth was of these people’s experience. The degree of violence people who lived in Somalia in the 80s and 90s experienced is really amazing; I can see how that would have been producing some pretty unusual brain patterns (having your mom shot in front of you; being forced into a militia at 15; rape galore in the refugee camps). And there’s no doubt there were some seriously different cultural issues going on here than anything I’ve seen (although I question which ones were being highlighted as a matter of interest either to the people who make up the company or as a matter of interest to the South African author of the book this show is based upon): for example, how marriage works in Islam; the deep rooted feeling of hospitality that is extended to people of your extended family; how you make a living in a world where there is so little to go around (serving tea? translating? people smuggling?).

And then BAM in your face, the prejudice of the South African townships to the people who had moved there. We’re not talking just calling names – we’re talking wide scale murder, setting people on fire – a level of violence that goes far, far beyond my imagination of how people who hate immigrants treat them. And then there were the cops not coming to help them, but then again not coming to the townships at all – part of the overall problem of post-Apartheid South Africa not delivering for its poor citizenry. The lead character managed to hold on to his sense of self, but by the end of this story he has really just lost so much, over and over again, that I felt burdened with the knowledge that we as a world are just so full of hate for others I barely know how to take a single step forward. But there, I had a chance to get to know what the life of a Somali refugee/immigrant might be like, and in what ways I might perhaps find him very different from me and my experience …. but also how people in a township might be people I would find extremely different from me. But the hatred of the mob seemed too, depressingly, universal.

On the other hand, there was the nearly-sold out performance of the Carl Davis score to the silent movie Napoleon, which I wanted to see as one of those life-list things. Not just the longest movie I had ever seen (two PM to 10 PM with two 15 minute breaks and a 1:50 dinner break), but a genuine epic day and night of art PLUS I’d heard some rumors about how it was shown with three projectors at the same time and WOW. I had failed at River of Fundament and Einstein on the Beach at a mere 5 hours each; could I somehow soldier (HA HA!) though this five and a half hour marathon? I figured if worse came to worse and I left at the dinner break, I’d still have got £20 worth of cinema, especially given the whole thing was being done with an ORCHESTRA performing the score (no feeble solo piano tinkling along to this masterwork!).

Learning from my lesson from Einstein, I packed as if I were going hiking: flapjacks, crunchy candies, Doritos, a bottle of water, and a candy bar. I had a cup of chai (thank you Southbank Beanie Greeny) beforehand and a tea for the first two intervals, but avoided alcoholic drinks. I also made sure to have preventative toilet trips before the lights went down – important, as it turned out, since we weren’t allowed re-entry for rather a long time. I also allowed myself a nap about 90 minutes in during a sequence I had seen in 9 1/2 millimeter earlier in the summer; while a little bit of the beginning seemed different, most of the content before the first interval was very close to what Kevin Brownlow had shown from his home movie set of reels and I had found the Corsica section kind of dull (despite the amazing camera work during the horse chase scene).

The upshot of this (aside from possibly irritating my neighbors and losing a beautiful pair of gloves in my mad race to the start line) is that I found this film highly enjoyable from end to end, and sat eagerly waiting the next bit when we came to the end of each interval. It’s got some serious problems with over heavy symbolism (oh, the eagle in the school scene! and all of the other scenes!) and a bad case of hero worship that rendered many scenes unintentionally comic, but MAN. Did I buy in to Napoleon as a leader able to come up with excellent strategy and incredible levels of leadership during some piss poor times in French history? Damned straight. Did I think he was a hero who led his country to the heights? Well, not so much. And did I find Josephine unexpectedly enchanting? Um, no. But this movie, I found it enchanting – partially as a work of propaganda (but an unfrightening one, unlike Leni Riefenstahl), partially as the focused work of an incredibly creative mind. OH the revolutionaries of France’s terror and their hurdy gurdy player and the pet bunny! OH the crazy, crazy Violine, with her own personal altar to Napoleon, dressed as a bride and praying and MAD! OH Napoleon’s ridiculous lack of a sense of humor! OH the shimmering silks and nudity and madness at the Victims’ Ball! And you know, I think I came out of it with a slightly better understanding of French history. So while it wasn’t perfect, there was… oh wait, I forgot … THE MOMENT WHERE THEY OPENED THE CURTAINS AND THE OTHER TWO PROJECTORS CAME ON AND THE SCREEN WAS SUDDENLY TRIPLED IN SIZE. Fuck you Stanley Kubric, fuck Lawrence of Arabia, here’s sixty musicians and a screen the width of a football field AND A FUCKING ARMY ON THE SCREEN. And all the way through it the orchestra SERIOUSLY heightened the experience.

Yeah baby.

And there was a moment when Napoleon said that he had a vision …. of a Europe where every one was free … of a Europe where there were no borders. And the audience as one clapped and cheered. What an experience.

So three more days to catch Isango Ensemble, and Napoleon is apparently

Review – La Boheme – Isango Ensemble at the Hackney Empire

May 22, 2012

One of the things that makes dramatic art great is that it transcends a time and place and a culture and holds its meaning when reimagined as part of a completely different world from that of the author. For example, Shakespeare holds both as a straight Kabuki show and as modern ballet. South Africa’s Isango Ensemble has done a great job of taking Western stories and reflecting them through a mirror of the township experience, showing the relevance of Scrooge to modern capitalism and making a Magic Flute more enchanting thanks to a marimba orchestra (and the powerful portrayal of the Queen of the Night).

I had no problems, therefore, in anticipating a successful adaptation of La Boheme when it was announced as one of the three shows the Isango Ensemble was bringing to the Hackney Empire. Normally I would avoid 19th century opera, but I thought with a fresh look (and a mountain of marimbas) I might find the joy I’d missed when I saw it long ago at the Seattle Opera.

And, to a great extent, this was true. Performed mostly in English and reduced to a two hour running time, this was a Boheme that was packed full of energy and rather short on wallowing in misery. I enjoyed seeing Rodolfo and Mimi meet in a shanty where the occupants struggle to keep warm and to keep illuminated; her search for a candle and his desire to have someone keeping the chill away make their love affair seem to aim for survival as much as affection. Having Rodolfo’s space be a one story, one room building with four people living in it seemed as appropriate a version of poverty as a top floor garret; and heating poverty is something that has in no ways gone away in the modern world.

The next scene, in a “shebeen” full of rowdy carousers celebrating a local holiday, is lively and fun. Corrupt government ministers running around with inappropriate girlfriends is just as timely now as when it was written, and Musetta’s mocking of her “poodle” Alcindoro was funny. This was my favorite part of the show – while it was not centered on the main pair of lovers, the life it showed was exciting and the group scenes energetic.

With all of the dancing and singing in this show, I think the Isango Ensemble blew a normal “Boheme” out of the water. I don’t normally like 19th century opera, but – helped by the good singing of the cast – I found myself bubbling along with this one. My suspicion is that people who were familiar with the show would enjoy it even more than I did, as the adaptations of the original music were probably pretty faithful (as they were for Magic Flute). Here’s hoping they come back and roast another old chestnut until it’s nice and tasty.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, May 17th, 2012. It continues through June 1st.)

Ikrismas Kherol – The Young Vic

December 11, 2007

So – the South African Christmas Carol that I saw at the Young Vic last night (December 10th, 2007) was really good. The description is “set in modern South Africa, with Scrooge a woman who runs a mine.”

Well. The show opened with the “miners” in the “mine shafts” (the catwalks over the stage), clanging and stomping and singing as they finished off their shift, moving into a big central area for a mining pantomime, then heading “up the elevator” to the surface where they sang some more and danced and horsed around, jumping and slapping their boots and … well, the songs, they actually had that kind of “Working on the Railroad” sound to them, like actual mining songs, and while I’m sure miners don’t normally do any kind of synchronized dancing on payday, I loved the energy these guys had. I kept thinking, Billy Elliot, eat your heart out! This show was ten times more tuneful and had much better choreography.

That said, what I really liked about this show was its emotional impact. By setting it in a country where abuse of labor is much more free and poverty much more dire than, say, the US or the UK at present, Scrooge’s selfishness and indifference to others was thrown into much higher relief. At home, someone who says they’d rather not give money to pay a child’s school expenses because “people shouldn’t have kids if they can’t afford them” wouldn’t actually be condemning said child to not go to school; someone who refused to give to a charity kitchen and said that it would be better that the poor should die “and decrease the surplus population” would be seen as being tacky but not leading to other people’s deaths through his or her inaction. (In some cases, I think, this sort of person would just be the typical anti-tax, John Galt, “poor people are lazy” kind of person that thinks he’s actually quite moral and ultimately creating a better society through his “virture of selfishness.”)

But it was clear that in South Africa, without someone to pay the bills for medicine, sick people die in their beds, the poor (especially children) eat garbage until they starve, and prostitution – even if it leads to your own early death – may be the only way to get any of that damned, desperate money you need so very much just to get through to the next day. Did you throw women out of work so that you could sell the land their factory sits upon? Then you may have ruined all of their lives and that of their children and every single person who depended on them to get them a meal and shelter. Even if what you did was just the “free market” acting to “maximize revenue potential,” it was still immoral, and to say there was no reason for you not to do it because “it’s enough for a man to understand his own business” doesn’t excuse it. Invisible hand, my ass.

Sadly, it’s been the Victorian setting of all of the “Christmas Carol”s I’ve seen in the past that kept Scrooge as just a curmudgeon in my eyes rather than a person whose claim that “It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s” covers a genuine black hole in his heart. When you look at everyone who’s not as rich as you, who’s not as well-dressed, well-spoken or well-educated as you, and say, “That person, their fate has nothing to do with me, and it’s not my business to try to effect any difference in their life even if it might be in my power to do so,” you are spreading a selfish evil through the world and failing to recognize the web that connects all of us.

At any rate, the story telling power and musical prowess of last night’s Christmas Carol was truly amazing. I was exhilirated and moved, and I stood and clapped my heart out at the end, which I almost never do because I’ve seen lots of theater and it usually doesn’t touch me like this did. Get up and go see it, watch the “Christmas Present” scene of people dancing at at street party in the township, and tell me your view on this story has not been permanently changed.

Impempe Yomlingo (the South African Magic Flute) – The Young Vic

November 27, 2007

Despite its somewhat sincere looking ads, Impempe Yomlingo is a Magic Flute well worth catching. First, the music is a blast – mostly performed on marimbas (I think it was about a ten marimba orchestra), but also with trumpets and even filled glass bottles – making the stiff sounds of some 200 years past come through fresh sounding and, well, pleasant on their own merits. The show was about 75% in English, and far more intelligible (even in South African) than most operas. More importantly, it was emotionally engaging, in part because several sub-plots and some of the more boring songs were cut out. The Queen of the Night had a gravitas (scary murderous powerful mom!) that Kenneth Branagh’s “psycho Tinkerbell” totally lacked; Papagena’s pink camouflage costume made tears run down my cheek. There were disco lights and dancing and people singing, in chorus, songs that had been formerly sung alone. I highly recommend it!

(This review is for the night of Tuesday, November 27th)