EIF: As British as a Watermelon – Festival Theatre, Edinburgh

Reviewer: Dominic Corr

Writer/Director: Mandla

Bridget. It’s a name which certainly evokes provocations of middle-class Britain. Yet, this is the name given to the performer mandla as the performer was raised by mandla’s grandmother, and the one Mandla lived with whilst living in Glasgow.

Pacing the make-shift kitchen, speaking of the rejection of Bridget, a name which strikingly rings British oppression and does more than skirt the suggestion of colonialism, Mandla Rae opens up to the audience with much to process. But it isn’t an open and frank discussion as some may structure, instead, Mandla forms a detachment from those around, as mandla begins to explain in spoken word and lyrical structure the rejection of enforced identity and sexuality, personal pronouns and the self-identification as “agender” to reclaim the power taken.

Identity becomes an overarching and richly complex concept throughout British as a watermelon, the title a play on the synonymous fruit, popular and delicious, but very clearly originating elsewhere. But the metaphor is not as easily ascertained as the pulp of the fruit. Indeed, for as much as mandla rings the flesh to extract the water, tossing away the seeds and gristle, so too do the audience’s attempts to extract something tangible beyond the vague.

Thematically, weight is transferred unequally across the production – but these sequences are where the power in mandla’s voice comes through. Amidst the talk of colonialism, youth and the past, the subject of mandla’s upbringing within the doctrine of Christianity is central. Indeed, the show opens with mandla’s recital of the Lord’s Prayer, stopping to emphasise the words of ‘power’ and ‘forgiveness’ – that like the son of God, Mandla has too risen from the dead, though the details of this become more apparent as the audience is introduced to the name change and rejection of pronouns and ‘dead self’.

There’s little wonder that whilst talking about the trauma involved with the performer’s Adventist upbringing, this manifests in the resulting violence conducted with the watermelons as the performer makes a powerful and thought-provoking rumination and criticism on religious upbringing and the cruelty of God. Viscerally, mandla pries apart these watermelons in any manner she can – usually with great violence or penetrations, screwdrivers, knives, hammers, and occasionally just through brute strength. Often, mandla pushes their fingers through the flesh of the fruit.

Fragmented, the wealth of topic discussion is eased by mandla’s presence and charisma with the audience. There’s a little back and forth, as the performer sweeps across the small stage, maintaining a sense of approachability and even innocence to a degree. As we dip back and forth from the UK to Zimbabwe, between the past and present, there’s a sense of playing catch-up and the audience always being one step behind. As British as a watermelon speaks with a resounding voice, Mandla’s presence is compelling, and if you’re wondering why mandla chose this new name. It means power. Something took back and reclaimed.

The Reviews Hub Score

Powerful but fragmented

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