THE ZULU, with Mbongeni Ngema and Matshitshi Ngema. Directed by Christopher John. (Rhodes Theatre today and tomorrow at 2pm and 8pm)
Reviewed by Brett Adkins
ONE thing is absolutely certain – if theatre and music icon Mbongeni Ngema had ever chosen to stand before a classroom as a career, he would have made children fall head over heels in love with history.
This legendary creator and producer of many stage hits returns to the stage after 27 years – you can only feel that we have been all the poorer for him not making a reappearance in the spotlight sooner, although festival audiences can certainly soak in his talents now.
Ngema is a born storyteller – indeed, it runs firmly in his family as the tales he tells are based on his real experience of listening in the evenings to the stories his great- grandmother, Mkhulutshana Manqele, used to tell him about the Zulu nation and its people.
It is a tour de force of immense vibrancy, colour, humour and insight as his audience is swept along into the world of folklore, which, from the mouth and body language of Ngema, becomes as real as if the actual events were being staged before you.
It’s a history lesson turned on its head, as the actor weaves a rich tapestry – armed with a voice that fills the theatre and a commanding stage presence – for almost 90 minutes, assisted only by the presence on stage of co-performer Maskandi artist Matshitshi Ngema. Matshitshi provides not only musical backing, but also a kind of sounding board during re-enactments of events which adds three-dimensional value to the piece.
Also, those re-enactments and the animated telling of landmark events in Zululand’s history bring to gripping, tense and often bloody life a momentous past.
We witness Ngema relate the stories of King Shaka, the murder of Piet Retief, the Battle of Blood River and many other decisive moments that changed the course of a culturally unique people that, as Ngema points out, even had an impact on international affairs.
The death of Shaka is one of the poignant highlights of the production – but there are many others when lighting is used to superb effect to create prevailing moods before, during and after historic battles with British soldiers. The murders of Retief and his men, as well as his son, provide another piercing episode when Ngema utters Dingaan’s orders to “kill the wizards!”
The direction by Christopher John provides so much light and shade that each new tale is its own treasure.
Ngema says it was due to his great-grandmother, whose skills he credits with keeping much Zulu history alive, that he has followed a career in theatre. Indeed, if his technique is anything to go by, she must have been a star act in her own right.
This is a master of the stage at work and festivalgoers should not miss an intriguing, roller- coaster bedtime story that will remain with them for some time afterwards.