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Woza History! not great theatre

Woza Albert!

With Peter Mashingo and Errol Ndotho
Directed by Sello Maake ka Ncube
3 & 4 October 2003
At the Arts Centre, The Bull, 68 High Street, Barnet.

Now on tour through the UK.

Jean Meiring

Woza Albert! was a zigzagged shriek of theatrical electricity when it was conceived by Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon in 1981. By the time I saw this satirical two-hander at the Grahamstown fest in 1991 its references were dated, but it was still able to cause a jolt. Today, sadly, it’s a piece of theatre history.

It explores what would happen if Jesus Christ — known by the euphonious sobriquet Morena — was silly enough to make Apartheid South Africa the destination of his second coming. The comic possibilities are clearly endless: images of a bewildered Jesus lost in the Kafkaesque maze of bureaucracy and “Whites Only” park benches are arresting.

Yet, thankfully, the world has turned. South Africa has undergone a fundamental constitutional transformation; it’s blessed with a new political elite, with its own cornucopia of mistakes and madnesses. Why, then, is Johannesburg’s Market Theatre giving this piece another outing? Of course, it was a cultural milestone in the Struggle; it resonates with memories for many. But this does not mean it’s still great theatre today. Surely the Market, and other South African theatre companies, would be better served creating new pieces addressing the litany of travails South Africa is encountering today?

This said, actors Peter Mashigo and Errol Ndotho do their utmost to enliven the dated script. They are both talented and blessed with abundant energy. In spite of the script, it’s a pleasure to watch them entering into the plethora of characters and caricatures in the piece.

They leap and bound about like gymnasts. With the most meagre of costumes and props they become an old township dowager or peripatetic sage. Their bits of mime are especially well-observed and deftly executed.

Mashigo and Ndotho are thoroughly committed and focused; how one looks forward to seeing them on the London stage again, in something more compelling.

Part of the blame for this production’s lacklustre quality must be borne by director Sello Maake ka Ncube. For much of the one and a half hour’s duration, the piece plods along; done at a brisk jog (with especially the connections between vignettes done more snappily) it would have far greater impact.

A few judicious cuts, too, would have streamlined a somewhat meandering production.

Also, the joy of this form of minimalist “poor theatre” — a staple of South African stagecraft — is usually the extent to which a single item or garment in different scenes transforms itself into many different things. Thus, at the outset one expects the two wooden boxes, slapped down in the centre of the stage, to be used all over the place during the piece, reinventing themselves as stools, houses, cars, people. This doesn’t happen. In fact, generally one would have liked to see the stage used more fully and more inventively.

Woza Albert! is indeed a classic piece of protest theatre. This genre, however, has a very short shelf life. Especially when there’re so many fresh and deadly ills to protest about today.

7 October 2003

boontoe / to the top

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