In the other half of its repertory tour at Shakespeare Theatre South Africa’s Isango Ensemble transformed the Bard’s poetic telling of the Venus and Adonis myth into a glorious, multi-dimensional and paradoxical journey of fate and desire and death.
Infusing the more straightforward and martial Roman mythology over the more mystical, paradoxical Greek antecedent, this production gibes voice again to the capricious vagaries of power in the universe to wreak havoc on mortals and gods alike.
Happily, the simplicity of the story allowed the production to bathe the audience in reverberating variations sung exquisitely sung in multiple South African languages, from Zulu and isiXhosa to Sotho, Setswana, and Afrikaans, without relying on the text to illuminate the narrative (though again, audiences are urged to refresh their memories with the synopsis in the program.) In the poem, the Goddess of Love Venus (known in Greek mythology as Aphrodite) accidentally pricks her finger on her son Cupid’s arrow (who is known in Greek mythology as Eros), and is subsequently gripped with desire for Adonis, a chaste young hunter on whom she first lays eyes. Charmingly, Cupid is played with great comic relish by Zamile Gantana.
…this production gibes voice again to the capricious vagaries of power in the universe to wreak havoc on mortals and gods alike.
Again and again in song and movement and choral dance Venus—stunningly portrayed by an ensemble of actresses—swoons for and seeks to seduce a decidedly uninterested Adonis. Like Zeus transforming himself into an endless series of forms, this Venus morphs from one womanly incarnation to another, with the many Venuses played by Noluthando Boqwana, Bongiwe Mapassa, Zanele Mbatha, Zoleka Mpotsha, Busisiwe Ngejane, and Zoina Ngejane. By winding and twisting a long, flowing white cloth, the many Venuses, headed by the resonantly-voice Co-Founder Pauline Malefane, sing and physicalize their desire for the boyish, chaste Adonis, played with intense resolve and clarity by Mhlrkazi(Wha Wha) Mosiea.
Fascinatingly, the freshness and clarity of Isango Ensemble Co-Founder/Director Mark Dornfod-May and Choreographer Lungelo Ngamlana’s rendition of this ancient tale brought startling new optics to the current re-examination of issues of sexual consent and sexual agency and “no meaning no.” Unlike in early Christian (and other religions’) morality, where the locus of control and the agency of sexuality resides solely with the man–the husband and patriarch—the story of Venus and Adonis reverses that old order and infuses woman with sexual desire equal to or greater than that of the man. When Venus is rendered sexually powerless, however, by the insistence innocence and purity of Adonis, the inherent aggression of a one-sided sexual dynamic becomes explicit.
Led by the regal countenance of company Miss Malefane as the focal character of Venus, this chorus of women of varying ages and personages deepened the production’s insights into the nature of female sexuality and the right to chastity as a construct of young manhood regardless of sexual orientation. The production illuminates the divergent pull of fate and free will, and the limits of mortal and divine power.
Concurrent with Venus’ longing, is the hunt by Adonis’ friends of a wild boar, vigorously played by Luvo Rasmeni. Here too the jubilant power of the ensemble is palpable and gripping. And so the story goes, ebbing and flowing until, in the second act, Death appears, and the locus of the narrative shifts spectacularly. Played with exceptionally frightening effect by Zebulon Mmusi, Death brings its fire-tongued, serpentine power to the stage through one of the productions’ most breathtaking marriages of movement and makeup and costume—a truly inspired creation.
As with its repertory partner, The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo, director Dornford-May, lighting designers Mannie Manim and Anthony Doran, and costume designer Gail Behr brought their considerable talents to the fore, creating a layered, evocative sense of timeless place and story.
The fluid ensemble also included Thobile Dyasi, Ayanda Eleki, Nontsusu Louw, Sifiso Lupuzi, Siyasanga Mbuyazwe, Sinethemba Mdena, Siyanda Ncobo, Cikizwa Ndamase, Sonwabo Ntshata, Tukela Pepeteka, Masakane Sotayisi, and Ayanda Tikolo.
The radiant score, composed by the hugely talented music co-directors Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantysis, cradled and rocked the audience throughout, with whispers and shouts and wails and rejoicings. The brilliant musicality and jubilant voices of this remarkable company rose as well to the epic, and spoke–like the ensemble’s own collective narratives from the townships of South Africa—of the depth of a human condition that is mythic unto itself.
Interesting, I attended the performance with a close friend who lived and raised young children in Lesotho and South Africa thirty years ago, and she was utterly transported back to this most complex and vital region, to the resonate voice and resilience and dynamism of this powerful and expansive land.
Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, with a 20-minute intermission.
Advisory: Adult themes.