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Theatre Journal 54.2 (2002) 303-305
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Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries. A South African interpretation of the Chester Mystery Plays. Broomhill Opera Company and The Spier Festival, Wilton's Music Hall, London. 13 July 2001.
Yiimimangaliso: The Mysteries is the product of an extraordinary collaboration between London's Broomhill Opera Company and the Spier Festival near Cape Town, South Africa. Over a thousand South Africans, of various heritages, were auditioned for the thirty-four acting and singing roles in this collaborative production. Beginning with the medieval English of the Chester mystery plays, the actors speak in seven languages, most often in the four major South African languages. Drawing on the rich musical heritage of South Africa, the production is sung and performed with a commitment and richness that soar through Broomhill's 150-year-old Wilton's Musical Hall, the acoustically vibrant space where Yiimimangaliso enjoyed an extended run in London in the summer of 2001. The production, originally staged for the Spier Festival in South Africa under the artistic direction of Broomhill Opera, was brought to London in repertory with the company's Carmen.
Employing cross-racial and cross-gender casting, this glorious-spirited production passes freely among its several languages to tell stories from the Old and New Testaments in its abridgement of the Chester Cycle. This is "poor theatre": a bale of straw denotes Bethlehem, a circle of light the Ark. We do not move from wagon to wagon, as in the mystery cycles of the Middle Ages, but instead the stories move around us, amid voices and drumming from behind and above. Everything is accompanied by percussion and song: drumming with tires, drumming with sticks and oil drums, drumming on chests and thighs and the wooden floors of the old theatre. Of course, we know this story, and while the use of Middle English, Afrikaans, Xhosa and Zulu might seem a challenge to the audience, the effortless and rapid change among musical idioms, and from one linguistic heritage to the next, becomes a tool of lyric estrangement that, in fact, allows the audience to get closer to this old story and this cast's vigorous engagement with it.
With a set that comprises a few levels on stage, the bare theatre walls, and a long thrust out into the center aisle, the costuming moves us easily from traditional African to modern, from biblically allusive to contemporary or folk wit. God is powerfully played and sung by Vumile Nomanyama, who (with good theological logic) becomes Jesus in the second half of the cycle. As God, Nomanyama [End Page 303] is every inch a Lord in the first half of the play, his strong bare chest above a traditional wrap. He then unwraps the cloth and, in faded and torn jeans, drives out the moneylenders, gathers his disciples, raises Lazarus, and is crucified. The crucifixion scene was extremely simple, but Jesus' trudge through the streets and the brutality of his political martyrdom were painfully executed in a way that clearly evoked the brutality of South Africa's own violence and oppression.
The boy Jesus grows up in a scene where he masters the complicated hand and foot clap an angel has set for him. This clap, awkwardly attempted by his disciples, and his song, first played on a penny whistle, are together sung and danced by the whole company after his resurrection. This powerful lyric shorthand for the simplicity and beauty of Jesus' message brings out the operatic side of this theatre most elegantly.
The comic center of the Chester Cycle is the Noah story, played here with Boer settlers, women in long skirts and white bonnets, and men in the work clothes of immigrant farmers. Once Noah and his sons have become convinced of God's commandments and have (in mime) herded the animals on board, Noah's wife, sitting far downstage reading a fashion magazine, is comically cajoled and finally carried kicking and screaming to the safety of the ark. The receding of the floodwaters is marked with a sweetly familiar rendition of "You Are My...