Taking on giants: a play that could wow the world

Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

Photograph by Sanmari Marais.

If you’re seeking fine excuses to go to the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown this year, seek no further: Jenine Collocott and Nick Warren have once again been putting their very fine heads together, and this time have yielded a theatrical essay on Mandela’s childhood which soars with all those good values of clean narrative lines, superb physical theatre and humour mingled with pathos.

Making Mandela recently enjoyed a short season, aimed primarily at school children, staged at the State Theatre in Pretoria. The work was a little rough in terms of an unresolved-feeling ending, but the conveying of the meat of the narrative is held with a firm hand and a trusty heart by Jaques de Silva, Mlindeli Zondi – whose body language and mien resonate so strongly with that of a young Mandela you will do a double take – and Barileng Malebye.

There is the kind of implicit trust and muscular give and take between performers that you would anticipate in a trapeze act in the circus: the three click so powerfully and so well together that as they toss and manipulate the story between them, skirting age, geography, personalities and time, it never loses its momentum or sparkle. If anything, it feels too short and you wish that the whole tale of Mandela’s life, in close detail could be handled by this supremely talented cast.

And of course, there are the masks. Collocott and Warren have evolved a signature mask-making approach to grand narratives involving many characters and few cast members that draws impeccably from old masked theatre traditions. Their masks are potent and wise, witty and sinister, yet irrevocably human, and your eye is held as your heart judders to a halt around the values being articulated by individual characters.

You fall in love with the conveying of Mandela’s aged mother, widowed and alone as she leaves her son to be raised by clan royalty and you weep with gladness at the interface between the testosterone-filled young Mandela bursting with enthusiasm for life, and his ‘brother’ Justice, the son of the Thembu chief.

You don’t get a more potent narrative than Mandela’s life story. Charmed from its goat-herding roots in the village of Mvezo in the eastern Cape to the man’s peaceful demise surrounded by loved ones in his own bed, well into his 90s, it’s a story which has people into funding a horrible opera that was staged last year and is a major draw-card and a very steep – virtually paralysing – challenge in several respects for any serious creative practitioner.

Collocott and Warren have kneaded this story between them over some years, highlighting some aspects and casting others into shadow as they must, and here lies the rub in the work. If you have been living for the last several years on another planet and see this work without an internal knowledge of who Mandela grew into, a lot of the piece’s nuances might escape you.

The piece needs more development from a narrative perspective, but if this team get it right, they have the intellectual and skills-based wherewithal to develop an embrace of this story that is so big and so direct that it will wow not only Grahamstown festivalgoers, but the world.

  • Making Mandela is written by Nick Warren and Jenine Collocott and directed by Jenine Collocott. It stars Jaques de Silva, Mlindeli Zondi and Barileng Malebya, with scenography by Duncan Gibbon and sound design by Peter Cornell. It will be performed at this year’s National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

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