By Carla Neuss

 

Born in Chester, England, director Mark Dornford-May worked in London theatre for twenty years prior to founding Isango Ensemble, a Cape Town–based lyric theatre company in 2000. Helming the Spier Arts Festival in Stellenbosch, South Africa, Dornford-May built his company by holding auditions in townships to discover new South African talent, a move that was not without controversy in the recent wake of apartheid. This unique audition process yielded a new multiracial company whose inaugural season in 2000 was comprised of South African adaptations of Bizet's Carmen and the medieval Chester Mystery Cycle (titled Yiimimangaliso—The Mysteries). While the productions initially received mixed reviews in South Africa, they were met with international acclaim upon touring, with Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph proclaiming Yiimimangaliso to be "one of the most moving, beautiful, human and courageous shows you will ever see."1 The productions transferred to the West End and have since received multiple reprisals, ultimately both being adapted into films that were awarded in several film festivals. Since then, the company has produced over ten adaptations of canonically Western works, characterized by their unique syncretic approach to combining Western canon and South African aesthetics. Recent productions include Mozart's Impempe yom lingo—The Magic Flute, Shakespeare's uVenus e Adonis—Venus and Adonis and A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Puccini's Abanxaxh—La Boheme, all which have toured to stunning success throughout Europe, the UK, the United States, Australia, and Japan. 

CN:

In tracing Isango's journey over the last twenty years and considering its early success—particularly in the UK—what do you attribute the enthusiasm of Western audiences to?

MDM:

I think it's always been the complete commitment of the performers. That's still Isango's signature to a certain extent—the performers always really show up in performance. I've often thought Isango is sometimes more like a sports team than a theatre company. We train and we practice. But actually, once the game happens, everyone goes up to a different level and responds to the fact of the audience. So often you hear—or I do—actors in the UK saying, "Oh, yeah. But the rehearsal period was the best part of the process." I doubt you would ever hear anyone in Isango say that. For them, the performances are crucial because until that moment there's no real active art. You need that relationship.

Figure 1. Vumile Nomanyama as God in Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries. (Photo: Courtesy of topphoto.co.uk.)

 

CN:

How did the positive international response contrast the initial response from South African audiences? Several white spectators famously walked out of the first production of Yiimimangaliso—The Mysteries (2001) when a black actor, Vumile Nomanyama, appeared onstage playing God.

MDM:

Yes. Right at the beginning of Yiimimangaliso—The Mysteries, as soon as Vumile walked on and said "I am God," we lost fifteen, twenty [white] people who stood up and noisily left the auditorium. People left in droves. And one of the white audience members came up to me at the end of the show and accused me, saying "Why are you trying to Africanize this wonderful arts festival?" I said, "But you're African too," which of course annoyed him even more. But I think it was that what we were doing was so unusual. They had very little to relate it to in South Africa at that time on the scale we were working on. Many of the shows were imported musicals from the West then. On top of that there was also tremendous jealousy within the arts world that I had been brought in to run this festival rather than it been given to a South African director. And that instead of going into the theatres and looking for experienced actors and offering them work in the company, I'd taken, as it were, kids from the townships. And those things were really upsetting to a lot of people. It was like I was dismissing all the work they were doing—which was not my intention at all—and so there was tremendous hostility. And I think that was shown in the press reviews—the reviews that first season were absolutely appalling, I think without exception. But the show, I suspect, was as good at Spier as it was by the time it got to London some weeks later. When we brought it back to South Africa after the London run, it was the exact same show but after the London success, the response was much more positive from the South African press. You know, there's that sense of "Oh, the British press like it so it must be good." A lot of reviewers then I think went back and said "Oh, this has developed tremendously since I first saw it" because they had to cover their tracks. There was a lot of backtracking.

Figure 2. Paulina Malefane as Carmen. (Photo: Courtesy of topphoto.co.uk.)

 

CN:

So now, twenty years later, do you feel that the response of South African audiences, particularly white audiences, is different? Meaning, if a black actor portrayed God onstage now, would there still be the kind of blowback you experienced in 2000?

MDM:

No. I don't think they would. I mean, that was my naiveté at the time. Spier is very close to Stellenbosch, which was in many ways the intellectual center of apartheid. At the time the lighting designer, Mannie Manim, said, "You are completely and utterly mad. You are putting forty black actors on a stage in Stellenbosch—you have no idea what you are doing." And I didn't. It wasn't that I was being very brave. I was just like, "So why is that an issue, what's the problem?" I don't think people would walk out now, people would be too ashamed to walk out because of a black actor. But if you want the absolute truth, sadly, I think a lot of people would still find it objectionable, they just wouldn't have the courage to walk out anymore. I mean, it was 2000. We were five and a half years after the end of apartheid—it was a red rag to a bull.

But today there are still these critiques—people say, "Oh, but these are amateur performers." And I say, what the hell does that matter? If someone is playing a role and you are convinced by that person, and they involve you in the story then that person's an actor. And if they are getting paid for it, then obviously they're a professional actor. The other comment was, "They're untrained." What the hell does that mean? It's these ridiculous divisions which have become more and more apparent in theatre, which I do get angry about. And I think it's completely wrong. For example, I was engaged in large-scale community mystery plays growing up in Chester. And as far as I was concerned, even looking back now, I thought they were fantastic. They were spectacles which moved people and people enjoyed. Is that lesser "art"? It's just as important as theatre for those people involved and the audience watching as anything on a "professional" stage. But the company has changed dramatically now in the sense that actors like Zamile [Gantana] or Paulina [Malefane]—you know, twenty years ago they hadn't had much experience at all and they'd not really traveled internationally. Now they've been in nearly every major theatre in the world. They've been performing for twenty years. They've all been to New York. They've all been to L.A. They've all been to Australia. These days I have to do less teaching and training and I can do more directing now. And the new people coming into the company are helped into how we work and are trained in its ethos by the people who've been there for ten, twenty years.

CN:

And how do you see the state of South African theatre now, twenty years since Isango started and twenty-six years after apartheid?

MDM:

I think South African theatre has lost its way a bit because, you know, before [the end of apartheid] you had the huge state companies in Cape Town, Pretoria, Jo'burg, Durban, who were there ready to shore up the intellectual apartheid message which was trying to show how much more important European culture was against black African culture.

Figure 3. The company performing A Man of Good Hope. (Photo: Courtesy of Keith Pattison.)

 

 

That's what their very existence was. Or you had the Market Theatre that, for a lot of its existence, was about attacking apartheid and was a political powerhouse with both a small and capital "P." So when you took away both of those theatrical genres, when you took away that apartheid government, the state theatres basically imploded more or less. All they're doing now, partly in order to survive financially, is importing more and more European musicals on their third, fourth, fifth, sixth world tour. Political theatre, sadly, almost overnight passed away. With the advent of democracy the brilliant radicals and innovators who created it didn't want to attack the new ANC [African National Congress] government. Well, actually, nowadays sometimes questions do need to be asked about the ANC, like any government. But that theatrical questioning and criticism has sort of died as well. And there's very little at the moment that has shaped the middle ground, and that's because writers haven't been properly cultivated. I think one of our own failures as Isango is that we haven't put enough resources into discovering new playwrights. And that is reflected across the whole of South African theatre. There's a lot of new plays—mainly written by white South Africans—but very few of them are written by young black South Africans. And no one's really taken that on board and dealt with that. We've recently done two pieces based on books by South African authors [Fred Kumalo's Dancing the Death Drill and Johnny Steinberg's A Man of Good Hope]. We've taken these books—South African literary work, where there is a great tradition—and we've developed those into stage shows [SS MendiDancing the Death Drill (2018) and A Man of Good Hope (2016)]. And that, I think, has helped in a way but what is certainly one of Isango's failures is that we haven't developed playwrights yet. And that, I think, leads to the lack of focus in theatre at the moment because the theatre is still, at its core, a literary art form. And without new writers dealing with the world from a South African perspective for people to focus around, there's no real focus.

That said, there's a lot of very, very extraordinary, real grassroots township theatres who are doing extraordinary things. But there's no one really with the right resources grabbing it by the scruff of the neck and creating, you know, the Public Theater or the Royal Court for South Africa. The Market Theatre, in my completely personal view, is not really doing its job anymore—it's a shell of what it was before. There's no passion there. And there's still the lingering sense that the arts are controlled by people—both as audiences and creators—who were there twenty, twenty-five years ago [during apartheid]—and I think the majority of black South Africans still don't feel that the performing arts belongs to them. We need to crack that—and I think in Isango we do try and crack that particular thing—but it's a very difficult process. The films [U-Carmen eKhayelitsha (2005), Son of Man (2006)Unogumbe (2013), and Breathe—Umphefumlo (2015)] in fact, what I'm proudest of about the films is not all their awards, but the fact that they've been shown many times on South African television. And they always attract a huge audience. So if Paulina or Zamile go into the townships, they're immediately recognized—they're film stars as far as those communities are concerned. I think South African television has missed a huge opportunity in creating television that people wanted to watch, which reflected their lives and which was exciting and creative. It's the same with the film industry in South Africa. Many South Africans films are, on the whole, about white liberal guilt rather than anything else. I mean, you could have taken U-Carmen and created a sort of Bollywood industry in South African film, if they'd followed through. Take Sarafina!—which again was massively popular within South Africa—but it wasn't followed up on. I think the ANC has failed appallingly within these last twenty years to actually say strongly enough how important the arts are. Thabo Mbeki was very, very supportive as a president. Trevor Manuel, his finance minister, was incredibly supportive as well. But as a whole, the ANC never really grasped the idea that the arts can help build a country. That's what America's done so well. I mean, the American culture has really been built out of the myths that Hollywood created. The person who's fighting the system, the usually corrupt system—from In the Heat of the Night to the Marvel films—all those morals and ideals. By building these shared values and stories, Hollywood built the country's sense of itself out of far more diverse elements—a much more culturally diverse population, given immigration—than South Africa, funnily enough, has ever had. It would have been very easy for the ANC government to take an overview and go "Actually, through the arts, we can build a whole new national identity that will bring us together."

Figure 4. Mark Dornford-May in rehearsal with the company. (Photo: Courtesy of Matthys Mocke.)

CN:

And how do you see Isango helping build South Africa's sense of itself now?

MDM:

Well, a lot of our focus is actually on touring because that's where our income comes from. We have no public subsidy. So the only way we survive is staging shows abroad. And the income from that keeps us going back home—roughly one week of touring keeps us going for a whole month. So if we tour twelve weeks a year then we have funding for nearly the whole year. So yes, a lot of our focus is abroad. And we haven't always had great experiences playing in South African theatres, like the Market or the Baxter. That's never really worked for us because there's still a sense that "the theatre is not for us, for the majority of South Africans," and breaking that down is very difficult in a formal venue. So we are trying to fight this. It's working, but, I mean, it's tiny. I'm talking about 150 people watching us perform in our rehearsal room or in a school. We do the whole show but it hasn't got lighting and it's not in a theatre, but we play the whole show and people feel much more connected in some ways because there are no trappings. They can feel ownership, they can feel safe in that space because it's just an old church hall and therefore they experience the performance in a completely different way because they're not worried that they're going to be told, "Oh, no, you don't do that. No, you can't do that."

CN:

And as an artist, how do you see your identity now—as a British director living and working in South Africa?

MDM:

I don't particularly think of myself as British or South African, actually, if you want the truth. I was born in the UK. But so many wonderful things and great experiences have happened in the last twenty years while I've been in South Africa. And with Isango, I've never felt one had to impose a British perspective on South African work. The work has always come from the company. So it feels very South African in that sense. I shape it and sort of help form it, but it's very much a collective South African voice. So in that sense, I think I am probably now a South African artist rather than British one.

Figure 5. Zamile Gantana, a founding company member, passed away from COVID-19 in July 2020. (Photo: Courtesy of Kathryn McLagan.)

The ongoing COVID-19 crisis has severely impacted Isango Ensemble's funding this year through the cancellation of its international tours. Due to the limited healthcare in the townships, many of the Ensemble are facing extreme hardships physically and financially, with founding member Zamile Gantana succumbing to the virus in July. To help support the company during this period, please visit its website or its GivenGain donation page. 

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

1. Charles Spencer, "Divine, Defiant, and Dazzling," Telegraph (London), February 28, 2002.