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Review: A Man of Good Hope at the Royalty Theatre

By Lisa Lanzi

This production is based on the book of the same name by award-winning South African author Jonny Steinberg. The true and far-ranging tale concerns Asad Abdullahi, a Somalian boy caught in civil war who saw his mother murdered then became a refugee. When the first draft of the manuscript was complete Steinberg asked Abdullahi to read it. He refused, claiming the story of his past was simply too sad. Contemporary humanity sometimes thinks that delving into memory is a therapeutic act - this man ‘of good hope’ prefers to exist in the present and look to the future rather than recall trauma from the past. Hence, the story is for others and now, an inspiring musical-theatre work for many across the world.

Mark Dornford-May founded the Isango Ensemble with Pauline Malefane in 2000. The Cape Town-based group draws its performers from once-disadvantaged townships and has found fame re-imagining theatre and musical classics, all directed by Dornford-May. The Ensemble is known for their high energy and beautiful music. The members’ powerful vocals plus marimba and percussion skills adds to the general buzz. The musical numbers are performed in English and Xhosa and range in style from pop, opera and musical theatre, all with glorious harmonies.

The setting for A Man of Good Hope is on traditional proscenium arch with extra entrances and exits via the stairs into the auditorium so that performers have access to backstage from a number of points. On stage, there is a seriously raked platform purpose-built for the production with planking to give a rough, vintage feel. Each side of the rake has lowered sections where the marimbas sit with the drums further downstage. Ingenious use of simple materials like cardboard boxes and old doors sees the creation of various vehicles, shops, departure points and homes where the action takes place, often in a choreographed but unpretentious way. An example of this is a ‘truck’ filled with women and ‘crossing’ Africa ‘driven’ by a man just holding a steering wheel while the closely grouped women take small steps in unison as they sing and deliver sound effects.

The entire cast are multi-skilled but their voices are rich and vibrant and the dancing is expressive, raw and earthy. Although the story and dialogue are punctuated with original songs and dance numbers there is a logic that works and nothing seems out of place. Some exciting and challenging moments occur when the narrative addresses subjects like female genital mutilation, bias and violence toward refugees (“the Somalian filth take our jobs”) and the political stance that despite the dismantling of apartheid and the promise of a united South Africa, the poor still get worse treatment than the white privileged who make up the smallest percentage of the population.

There is much to think on after seeing this production. Themes of dislocation, prejudice, racial violence and heartbreak sit beside those of kindness, love and resilience. A Man of Good Hope is a singular and considered inclusion in this 2019 Adelaide Festival.

Photo Credit: Keith Pattison

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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