THE MYSTERIES (YIIMIMANGALISO)
Queen's Theatre, London W1
Opened 26 February, 2002

The production which so exhilarated critics and audiences alike when seen last spring at Wilton's Music Hall in the East End has now deservedly moved west. The Mysteries (Yiimimangaliso) is the result of a knot of connections between Wilton's, Broomhill Opera, the South African Academy of Performing Arts and that country's Spier Festival, and is simply a South African version of the Chester cycle of mediaeval mystery plays.

But how much that word "simply" conceals! The staging is deliberately rough: on a raked stage wrapped with scaffolding, basic symbols represent far greater events. Noah and his family, for instance, take refuge behind an ark-shaped wooden trellis as a man in a costume marked "ANGEL" counts off the days of the Inundation while pouring from a watering can into a plastic basin. Christ resists the Devil's temptation in an entirely wordless scene in which a tune on a penny whistle overcomes the din of percussive cowbells. Most of the drumming throughout the evening is done on upturned plastic bins.

Words are spoken straight out to the audience with a formal ritualism, but we understand only a fraction of them, since the text is delivered in a fluid mixture of English, Xhosa, Zulu and Afrikaans (with a bit of liturgical Latin thrown in). It is the same approach that director Mark Dornford-May brought to his earlier, Anglo-Portuguese, production of this mystery cycle a decade ago: keep the staging straightforward and the storytelling of the acting clear, to overcome the hurdles of language.

The multi-racial company of 40 are cast almost, though not quite, entirely along "colour-blind" lines: virtually all the big mortal villains Cain, Judas, Pilate are played by white people, whilst Andries Mbali's Lucifer, though wicked, has the exuberant allure that a mystery-play devil should as he shimmies around in scarlet leather. Sibusiso "Otto" Ziqubu plays Noah as a fat and jolly farmer; after the Flood, when he and his family break into a rendition of "You Are My Sunshine", they are cowed into silence by the appearance of a poker-faced God, who then grins widely and eggs them on to even greater musical jubilation. As God and Jesus, Vumile Nomanyama brings both majesty and humanity wherever required, and Pauline Malefane sings the Virgin Mary in a high, clear voice.

I couldn't quite follow the couple of brief scenes between the Resurrection and the plaintive yet affirmative air sung by the entire company at the curtain call; it rather seemed as if the disciples at Pentecost and the Harrowing of Hell had somehow been combined. But by this point the audience on Tuesday had been entirely captivated, springing to their feet in the kind of near-universal ovation seldom seen amongst the invited luminaries at a West End press night. Lord knows what the cast of Humble Boy in the theatre next door make of such a big, joyous sound thumping through the walls.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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