Writer: Es’kia Mphahlele
Adaptor and Director: Sibongeleni James Ngcobo
Composer: Hugh Masakela
Designer: Nadya Cohen
Lighting: Wesley France
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Hull Truck deserves huge credit for bringing to the North of England this production by one of the world’s iconic theatre companies. The Market Theatre of Johannesburg was founded in 1976 and built a reputation equally for artistic excellence and as “The Theatre of the Struggle”, a liberal, multi-racial establishment at the heart of apartheid South Africa.
Now in changed times, Artistic Director James Ngcobo emphasises that the Market Theatre cannot live on nostalgia for the heroic past. However, he has chosen to revive his award-winning adaptation of a story from the 1950s written by one of the foremost radical intellectuals of the time, Es’kia Mphahlele, for the ground-breaking Drum magazine.
The play is an evocative mix of simplicity and sophistication. The story itself could not be more simple. Timi and Namhla are a young couple from the country. Faced with opposition from their parents and dreaming of a better life, they head for the city. People in the neighborhood are friendly, but life is confusing, their home a shack and work unobtainable. Namhla becomes pregnant which delights Timi, but presents further problems. In desperation, he takes a suitcase left behind by another bus passenger and, investing it with all his hopes for something better, insists it is his, with shocking consequences.
The narrative style is allusive and a combination of the realistic and the symbolic. From the beginning, with atmospherically melancholy jazz ushering in the stumbling exhausted figure of Timi (Siyabonga Caswell Thwala) drawn magnetically to the spot-lit suitcase, significance is all, but the first scene between Timi and Namhla (Masasa Lindiwe Mbangeni) is more mystery than exposition.
Ngcobo’s production uses the wide-open spaces of the Hull Truck stage to great effect, Timi and Namhla’s home a small raised area with a few bits of wooden furniture, all the rest of the world outside: the station, the street, the bus, the police cell.
The narrative is carried by two story-tellers. Molatlhegi Desmond Dube is a particularly strong story-teller, confidential, expressive, at the same time serious and wryly humorous, and is also outstanding as the helpful neighbor and assorted other parts, most tellingly a casually brutal policeman. The other narrator, Nhlamhla John Lata, contributes a memorable comic cameo as the neighbor who can’t stop talking – “Gasbag”, as he’s known.
With the aid of Hugh Masakela’s wonderfully evocative music, sung in many different styles by an elegantly-gowned trio of singers lounging comfortably in front row seats, and some imaginative mime and movement, Ngcobo calls up Timi and Namhla’s world most vividly: an early scene of their arrival by train, for instance, full of innocence and uncertainty, is amusing and charming.
Mbangeni is intense and vivid as Namhla, extremely moving in the play’s later stages and totally convincing in her love for Timi, and Thwala delivers a compelling performance as her husband, helpless in the grip of misfortune. He bumbles and laughs in happy innocence, his whole body collapses beneath the weight of guilt and exhaustion, he rages powerfully against injustice – like the play itself, he is entertaining and disturbing by turns.
Touring Regionally | Image: Contributed