The Theatreguide.London Review
The Mystery Plays were late-medieval English folk theatre, community-wide performances of dramatised bible stories, somewhat domesticated into English forms (i.e., Cain and Abel as recognizable contemporary farmer and shepherd, etc.). Their simple faith and theatrical power remain strong, and the city of York, for example, regularly revives its traditional Mystery cycle.
A couple of years ago two London-based directors, Mark Dornford-May and Charles Hazlewood, produced a version of the Chester Mystery Plays in South Africa, with a large multiracial and pan-African cast. The show had a brief run in a London fringe theatre last summer, and has now been brought to the West End.
In the pattern of other modern Mystery Play revivals, the first act races through Genesis, from Creation through Noah to Abraham and Isaac, leaving the second half for Jesus' story. This production's special quality comes from the directors guiding the cast toward translating the medieval English texts into a modern African context and idiom.
The play is performed in a polyglot of at least a half-dozen white- and black-African languages (of which English is not always the most intelligible), and the homey, folk-tale quality of the original text is retained through the use of various African styles of music, dress and characterisation.
An opening heavenly chorus of Deus Gloria transmutes into a traditional African song, while Noah and his family celebrate the end of their ordeal with a chorus of "You Are My Sunshine" and Christ's Nativity occasions a raucous township-style party.
Following the medieval model, many characters are interpreted as familiar contemporary African types. Noah is a simple country farmer, Lucifer a swaggering leather-clad biker, Herod's army modern terror police, Pilate a European governor.
Standing out in the large cast are Vumile Nomanyama doubling as a stern but paternal God and a calmly self-contained Jesus, Andries Mbali as an alternately comic and menacing Lucifer, and Pauline Malefane as an operatic-voiced Mary.
I have a problem of taste with this production, which perhaps not everyone else would share. While this is clearly a very sophisticated work of art, its basic premise is a faux naif style, pretending to be the product of the Africans' simple understanding of the bible in terms of their own world. And that implicitly invites us to take a superior attitude, smiling patronizingly at their primitive innocence. It is not a position that I, as a white audience member, feel comfortable being put into.
Clearly. not everyone shares my discomfort. Many find this simple and open expression of faith moving, and all can find much to enjoy in the colourful and musical production.
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Review - The Mysteries - Queen's 2002