The internationally acclaimed ISANGO Ensemble draws its artists from the townships around South Africa; their work focuses on re-imagining classics from the Western Theatre canon within a South African or township setting.
ISANGO have three productions in rep at the Hackney Empire until June 3rd, one of which is an interpretation of Robert Tressell’s 1914 socialist novel, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, relocated to South Africa in the early years of apartheid in a version written by Stephen Lowe.
The audience enter the auditorium to a moving tableaux scene, in Rustin’s Workshop. The musical opening features the female members of the cast bedecked in blonde wigs and frilly skirts, a dancing chorus musing on their need for money. Back in the workshop the conversations cover subjects not dissimilar to contemporary concerns in the work place that feed a divisive fear amongst workers. The talk is of the prospect of losing one’s job, of being undercut by foreign labour, the struggle to feed one’s family and problems overcoming illness. Keeping to the themes of the novel, artist Godfrey (Mandis Dyantyis) who has learned his skilled craft at his sister’s knee, expounds to his workmates on the capitalist oppression of the men and the need for unity and resistance. Dyantyis is a compelling protagonist and complemented well by equally feisty sister Minnie (Pauline Malefane). The pair are supported by a strong and adept cast. Infused with the music of the Isango Ensemble and the heat and colours of Africa in the lighting (Chloe Kenward) and costume (Leopald Senekal), the themes of Apartheid intensify the strands of the original. Interestingly Tressle (pen name from his painter/decorator trade essential) lived for a time in South Africa where he first became involved in trade unions and socialist politics, and had a mixed race marriage.
Whilst at times during the performance the dialogue is a little hard to hear, as the production is a blend of speech and song, and conversations drift from English to Afrikaans expressions at times, this does not spoil the spectator’s understanding of the drama. Music Directors Dyantis and Malefane blend traditional South African sounds with some eclectic choices teasing out humour and piquancy, including a spirited jazz interpretation of The Red Flag and the comic shallow rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’ (the South African national anthem) by contrast with the soulful sounds of the choir when they perform for themselves and not for white capitalists.
The ‘Great Money Trick’ analogy for capitalism is beautifully and comically executed. Godfrey uses slices of bread as raw materials and cutlery as machinery to demonstrate the wealthy factory owner trapping his workforce in a cycle of production, to earn money to buy food from their boss, to work, to eat and so on until overproduction renders them unemployed, The jokes about the ‘whiteys’ and the injustices meted out are pitched with bite and intensity but couched within a mocking lofty tone keeping an upbeat pitch and ultimately a rallying cry to fight for freedom how ever long that may take to come.
This is a rare opportunity to enjoy a global theatrical experience in the enchanting setting of the Hackney Empire, one of East London’s treasures.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists: Izigwili Ezidlakazelayo presented by the ISANGO Ensemble at the Hackney Empire
For more information on performances, the venue and tickets go to Full Listings