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Ujiimimangalisco and Ibali looTsotsi

The Mysteries on DVD (Heritage Theatre Video Production) and The Beggar's Opera at Wilton's Music Hall October December 2002 and 25 March 2003

Wilton's venerable and still dilapidated Victorian music hall is the base of Broomhill Opera, whose always enterprising productions I have followed around southern England to its various homes. The African version of The Beggar's Opera was played at the end of 2002 in double bill with a revival of The Mysteries, a masterly recreation of biblical stories from Adam & Eve to Christ's resurrection, was an experience never to be forgotten. Broomhill Opera's collaborative project with South Africans of multiple ethnic background, who had never been out of their own country, was one of the most inspiring achievements to have reached London in recent years.

Ujiimimangalisco (The Mysteries) had been one of the 2001 season's greatest triumphs. I saw it twice, the second time attending performances at Wiltons that were being filmed for BBC TV and video/DVD. The DVD is a permanent tribute to a great vision and one of the most important and fantastic artistic achievements of this new century; a beacon for how the artistic communities could help to point the troubled world in which we live towards a non-racialist future.

In the moving documentary which gives the background to their triumphant collaboration, Mark-Dornford-May, Charles Hazlewood and members of the company explain, with bare brick wall behind them, how, during the terrible times past, many South Africans lost almost everything, except their voices, which could not be taken from them, and which held their 'souls' and identities. They describe the process of recruitment of a company of singers from the cities and townships, a pool of talent epitomised by the fact that choral singing is a veritable way of life - 10,000 choirs in Cape Town, and with traditional songs for every circumstance in daily life, from washing up to circumcision!

The Mysteries was the first project to be 'workshopped' in South Africa whilst the company was being created; it was chosen because the Bible stories are familiar in these Christian communities. It was developed very gradually until the group became a virtual family of unlimited potential which, with mutual support, has gone on to triumph from year to year. It jumps from humour with Noah's family to almost unbearable tragedy with the Crucifixion. Everything is shown in the largely unrestored space with simple, improvised props on the stage, auditorium and balconies - an ideal venue for theatre of the imagination.

Based on the Chester Mystery Play it is given, without subtitles, in a mixture of English, Afrikaans, Xhosa & Zulu and feeling our way through them in the familiar Old and New Testament stories brings us closer to the world from which the company has come. For a second viewing I should have been grateful for subtitles (there are long passages of dialogue in the second act without music and with only a small proportion of the words in English) and viewers for whom none of those languages is their own will feel similarly, and perhaps more strongly so? But no reason to hesitate; this is tremendous entertainment and a show which you will want to see and hear again, as often as the St Matthew Passion.

Ibali looTsotsi (a South African interpretation of The Beggar's Opera by Mark-Dornford-May and Charles Hazlewood) was one of the toughest projects to take to an English audience familiar with its tunes. As with The Mysteries, The Beggar's Opera is given multilingually in the company's mother tongues including English, Afrikaans, Xhosa & Zulu, employing vocal traditions to be found in South Africa. The story is however easy to follow and is re-imagined at Wilton's in a combination of "old England and new South Africa" - (surfing the Web for The Beggar's Opera I chanced upon the whole text, to read or download free, a valuable resource).

The instrumental accompaniments are mainly percussive, and many of the familiar tunes from the Gay/Pepusch original are given unaccompanied, which during the first run seemed to us to have over-taxed some of the singing actors. Those doubts had faded away when we saw it again at Wilton's, for a short run before embarking upon a USA tour. There was a far greater confidence and the familiar tunes came over as angrily and poignantly as ever they had been in more conventional versions. All this great company's productions have been notable for the energy of everyone involved, raising the roof in this historic venue, which is not far from the Tower of London.

Guest productions at Wilton's have included Cavalli's Orion by venetianOpera and many events at this summer's Spitalfields Festival will be held there. See also June 2001 review of The Mysteries & of the same company's stunning Carmen, which should also be considered for revival and filming. For future productions of Broomhill Opera keep a watch on their website or contact via email.

Peter Grahame Woolf


© Peter Grahame Woolf