AMAJUBA: Like Doves We Rise
Criterion Theatre, London W1
Opened 6 April, 2005

Yael Farber and her company's show, first seen in Britain last summer, has returned for a two-month residency in the West End. It's hard to imagine a production less like its predecessor at the Criterion, the Reduced Shakespeare Company's farcical high-speed run through the Bard's entire works; for Amajuba consists of stories of the South African childhoods of the five cast members.

These are not tales of the atrocities of the apartheid regime (although forced relocation plays its part in more than one of the stories); the cast grew up only in the last days of that era. Their accounts of disintegrated families, black-on-black racism, rape and casual murder do not form the simple good-and-bad picture we lazily expect of South African material. The performers are bearing witness to the memories that they, like so many, must both accommodate and transcend, for the sake not of their country but of their own well-being.

The staging is simple, with no more than zinc baths, enamel basins and the cast's bodies and voices to set scenes. The voices are beautiful: even though we may not understand the words, those haunting unisons and harmonies the world knows through the likes of Ladysmith Black Mambazo cover an entire spectrum from songs of play to funeral laments and hymns of defiance.

And yet. In common with the Reduced Shakespeare mob, these stories feel rushed: all five of them, plus a theatrical framework, in less than 100 continuous minutes. The final episode, of Tshallo Chokwe's transition from soccer-loving youth to armed paramilitary, is particularly sketchy. I worry, too, that we may too easily write the content off as exotica: when France Conradie recounts the drowning of his cousin, it gets a laugh, understandably in terms of how it is introduced yet somehow betraying the symbolic value of his story. (The whole production is big on symbolism: images of running, swimming, washing clean, facing forward, all are deployed in variously loaded ways.) Even the gang rape of Jabulile Tshabalala by a bunch of Soweto toughs is less harrowing than it probably ought to be. Farber and her company use music to sugar the pill of the stories, but especially in a West End setting, one fears the pill itself may get lost.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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