BOOM! ONTO THE rudimentary set dominated with brown paper explodes a young man in a war helmet (Mathews Rantsoma), manning a paper aeroplane. He’s making sums that no doubt involve geography, mathematics, aviation and pilotry. Matters of consequence, you understand. The theatrical opening of the version of The Little Prince, currently on the boards at the Market Theatre, has pizzazz, gorgeous sound and a fantastic African interaction with the story, which gives relevance to the universal characters penned by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in 1943. This focus is present, but not, however dominant throughout the rest of the work.
There’s a splendid creative exuberance and almost contagious energy to the whole piece, from the folding of the programme into paper projectiles and the tasking of the audience to draw sheep, on the season’s opening night, all the way through to the flock of birds evoked with the skeleton of an umbrella. But it feels as though the gates of permissibility have been opened too wide to this young cast, and the casualty is the sense of subtlety, sadness and whimsy to the story, while the cast belt out their lines.
There are many wonderful creative decisions here, including the idea that the Little Prince is represented by everyone, but you need to be armed with the core of the original story tucked into your own heart and memories in order to be able to contextualise and understand all the antics. You’re not told who the fox is or why the snake is crucial. The flower lets her prince go before you’ve properly learnt how vain and vulnerable she is. Who is the tippler and why does the lamplighter appeal so much to this inhabitant of Asteroid B612? Why are baobabs dangerous and part of the Little Prince’s equation? None of these questions are answered satisfactorily in the story, leaving you floating on the edge of the gloriously choreographed movements of the cast.
The magical energy that defines so much of this piece is blunted by its digressions from the story, which are confusing and make it a relatively difficult piece to watch. This is a great pity because there are so many conceptual possibilities that are being teased open here, most of which beg to be reined in under the guidance of the story. But there’s another flaw in the season of this work which is troubling for the theatre fraternity in this city: some days ago, another stage version of the same work opened at the Studio Theatre in Montecasino. This reality forces keen Little Prince fans to either see both or choose, and given the tenderness of both pieces which are experimental, and the paucity of theatre-going audiences in this city, this overlap of planning may hurt both shows.
- The Little Prince is written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and directed by Mwenya Kabwe and Clara Vaughn. It features design by Wilhelm Disbergen (set and costumes), Sibusiso David Ndumndum (lighting), Daniel Buckland (movement) and João Renoto Orecchia Zúñiga (sound) and is performed by Lesego April Chabedi, Balindile ka Ngcobo, Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, Khanyisile Ngwabe and Mathews Rantsoma at the Ramolao Makhene Theatre, Market Theatre complex in Newtown, Johannesburg, until November 25.