In 2004, the late historian David Rattray single-handedly performed the tale of the Battle of Isandlwana, the first military encounter in 1879 between the British Empire and the Zulu Kingdom. The heady mix of energy and fact, sound effects and drama, politics, supposition and legend, drenched as it was in a splendid and discursive array of blood and heroism, was simply unforgettable, cast as it was in the humble Benoni-based hall of Sibikwa. iLembe, which was staged albeit briefly in Grahamstown and Johannesburg – also under the auspices of Sibikwa – echoes this supreme level of storytelling with guts and vigour.
Taking apart the historical figure of Shaka, king of the Zulu nation, the work offers a clearly woven tale which is a combination of song, gesture, spoken English and isiZulu (with surtitles) as it exposes the traditionally accepted history’s controversial underbelly, posing contradictory questions about the character of Shaka. This is achieved through the words of four characters in the history: Henry Francis Fynn (Jeremy Richard) a British immigrant trader-turned-medical adviser to King Shaka, complete with his brimless straw hat; Shaka’s interpreter Jackot Msimbithi (Andries Babalo Mbali); Shaka’s attendant Mbopha (Sabelo Mnisi); and Shaka’s sister, Nomcoba (Busisiwe Nyundu). Replete with a duo of sangomas onstage (Tholani Miya and Charity Hlophe) who chillingly and beautifully play the role of a kind of a Greek chorus, the work is compelling and driven.
And while they raise controversial issues that die-hard Shaka fans might find enraging, they offer the kind of three-dimensionality to the man that the makers of HBO series Oz do in their portrayal of men so capable of horror, but so endowed with humanity that your morals get confused and swayed. Is this man good? Is he bad? Is he, like most of us, an indefinite mix of both good and bad? King Shaka is not represented as a character in the play, but his presence is palpable and engaged with splendidly. You know you are in the presence of royalty as you enter the theatre.
Further to that, there are nuances and decisions in gesture and direction, dealing in particular with a sloped prop on stage that will truly take your breath away. Myriads of people, a whole army, the reach of an enormous land are evoked with wisdom and clarity.
The curious thing that happens in the interplay of language on this stage is that you develop a thirst to know the nuances of isiZulu, if you don’t already. The surtitles are succinct and pared down, but the isiZulu words that they correspond to are considerably longer. If you don’t understand isiZulu, you lose all the metaphors and flowers, and textures and idioms of the language.
Similar to works like the magnificent Tau, by Thabiso T. Rammala, iLembe brings the taboos and contradictions of traditional African narrative to a stage which could proudly be global, in its polished direction, performance and choreography. It smashes the parochial ideas that African traditional theatre on so-called western stages dragged with it for decades: here is proud African traditionalism and it is fierce, convincing and magnificent.
- iLembe is written and directed by Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba. It features design by Oscar Buthelezi (choreography), Themba Mkhize (music), Stan Knight (set and lighting) and Sarah Roberts (costumes) and is performed by Andries Babalo Mbali, Charity Hlophe, Tholani Miya, Sabelo Mnisi, Busisiwe Nyundu and Jeremy Richard. It performed at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, and more recently in a short season at the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani, Soweto. sibikwa.co.za