- South Africa and the Future of Post-Apartheid Theatre:An Interview with Mark Dornford-May, Artistic Director of Isango Ensemble
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. [End Page E-11]
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?
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.
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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.
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 [End Page E-12] 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...