Posts Tagged ‘Isango Portobello’

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.)


Review – The Mysteries (Yiimimangaliso) – Isango Portobello at the Garrick Theater

September 19, 2009

Last night J and I went to see Isango Portobello’s current production, “The Mysteries” (Yiimimangaliso). I’ve been very excited about this show since seeing them two years ago in their Olivier award winning Magic Flute as well as the wonderful and highly original adaptation ofA Christmas Carol. I figured, hey, Christian “Mystery” play, whatever, right? With the energy of this troupe, the great singing and dancing and original vision, it would still be a good night out.

Two caveats before my review: I have had a bacterial lung infection for a month (thus the near total lack of reviews as I’ve been too sick to go out) and am not a member of the faith celebrated in this show. That said, I got a really bad feeling when I realized I was walking into The Garrick Theater, home of the infamous boots of Zorro incident – a theater with sightlines whose shortcomings are only matched by The Palace.

The show very much stuck to the Biblical tales from which the original Mystery plays were made – God (a woman, Pauline Malefane) casts Lucifer (Noluthando Boqwana, a sexy woman who wore a red leatherette jacket and pants over a red and black bustier), God creates Adam, Adam and Eve are cast out of the garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah and the ark, Isaac and Abraham, the Begats, and then a bunch of stuff from the New Testament. A woman in the audience complained during the interval that she wished they’d provided a list of the stories so she had known what was going on; I was kind of surprised she wasn’t familiar with them (given that I was – they’re all very popular subjects for paintings at the very least) but I admit that with the show being done about 1/3 to 1/2 in languages other than English, if you weren’t familiar with the stories there would have been a whole lot of confusion about what was going on on stage.

Still, even the language issues couldn’t compensate for a certain lack of zip for this show. I imagine that someone who was really captured by the subject matter (in a way I never could be) would have found it very powerful to see Africans telling the story of the Bible with so much singing and dancing and general enthusiasm; but what I wanted was an original, powerful theatrical presentation that pulled me in. I think it would have been better in a more intimate space, such as the Young Vic (where I saw the other two shows) or Wilton’s Music Hall, where this production was first presented in 2001. But the story itself just seemed kind of dry and fragmented. The shows Isango Portobello presented two winters back were adaptations, but they took artistically sound theater and catapulted them into new heights; this show started with source material that I think very rightly does not get produced much and never in a commercial environment.

While I very much hope the company is successful in this tour, it is my fear that The Mysteries will continue to struggle, and this pains me because I consider the members of this troupe to be highly skilled performers. The scenes where they all raised their voice in song, as when Mary was being told of her incipient pregancy by the angel, were beautiful, and the scene of Jesus having his feet washed by a “fallen woman” touching, but unfortunately moments in which I was engaged were few and far between. Still, I think there is an audience out there who would enjoy a family-friendly show that I thought of as a bit of a cross between The Lion King and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. If this is you, or if you just really like Isango Portobello and want to support them, has got good seats, but make sure if you’re on the ground floor you sit no further back than row Q.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, September 18th, 2009. The Mysteries continues at the Garrick through October 3rd. And I don’t know if it’s just me but I thought having the musical director cast herself as both God and Jesus showed just a tiny bit of egotism. A more positive review can be read on the Financial Times.)

Isango Portobello returns! £5 if you can go on September 14th.

August 26, 2009

What good news was in my inbox today! Isango Portobello, the South African troupe behind the awesome (Olivier Award winning) Magic Flute of two years back, is coming back to London in September for a five week run of their new show, “Yiimimangaliso” (or “The Mysteries”), at the Garrick Theatre. Yay! I’ve been waiting to see them again for ages, since I thought both of the shows they did last time (the other being a version of The Christmas Carol) were awesome.

This news came to me courtesy of the Evening Standard weekly e-newsletter, which has been good for rather a nice spate of free tickets as well as listings of off-West end two-fer deals. This one had a line about the return of Isango Portobello and a FANTASTIC offer for £5 tickets to the September 14th preview. WHAT A DEAL! (Full listings for their theater club here for the interested.)

Um, only one problem for me, see: that’s my husband’s birthday. So, er, well, I kind of have other plans. 😦 And per Nimax (the official theater booking website for the Garrick, also has a bit more detail about the show), tickets are normally priced from £35-£47. So I throw myself on good old Last Minute, and I see I can get tickets for the previews (11th – 14th September) for £20-£25, but then it’s on to $25-$45 – not much of a deal from the regular price (though if you book them during theater week you can save a bit more, £15-£35.

So mostly I’m kind of frustrated here, because I could get in it really cheaply – but only if I blew off my husband’s birthday. Which, you know, isn’t really possible. I guess I will go eventually, and probably in the crappy seats in the third balcony, or trusting in my luck at having something good show up at the TKTS booth … but, well, that’s just not as good as having tickets in my pocket. But having this company come back is really good news, and I thought I’d pass this on in case someone else out there can actually go.

(Isango Portobello’s “The Mysteries” appears to be running from September 11th through October 3rd, 2009.)

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)