THE DREADED PARKTOWN Prawn. During the late 1980s in South Africa, it was the ugliest thing you could imagine, wherever in the political spectrum you were. It was a cricket, essentially, but very big and thorny of leg. It was orange and black in body and built like a tank. And it was scary as hell. It was also as scared as hell of you, and had a tendency to defecate in fear, to prove that. And thus, Andrew Buckland coined this wild and lovely story about them. The Ugly Noo Noo became a classic of South African storytelling in 1988 and you can see it with some contemporary nips and tucks, in the hands of Mpilo ‘Straw’ Nzimande this weekend at the Hilton Arts Festival.
It’s a story that took on gargantuan proportions and multiple awards that reached into political rhetoric which resonated with the State of Emergency-tainted country, bruised and scarred by apartheid as it was. Looking at the work more than 30 years later, and watching young audiences imbibe it, is interesting. Not only is the Parktown Prawn – with the help of the hadeda – almost an unknown entity in South African gardens today, but apartheid itself and all its grim legacies have also become like ancient history to young adults born after democracy.
The story it tells is long and involved and concerns, on the one hand, a man who just wants the creature dead, at any cost. Even though it is rather impervious to insecticide and is notoriously ‘unsquishable’. On the other hand, it involves a kind woman, who, with the help of “insect semaphores” aims to do good, but things turn pear-shaped with a vindictive chicken and an ant with poisonous intent.
In many ways, this play hasn’t stood the test of time. Its narrative becomes so complex and interwoven with historical jokes that it teeters on the brink of the incomprehensible. Nzimande, however, does a delicious job, in representing the whole gamut of characters here, from the prawns themselves, with their emotional incontinence and their ability to make themselves big and scary even if they’re missing a limb or three; to the hapless dog, Sebastian; to the sister of ‘our’ prawn in question, named Poly, who carries her ovipositor on her body; to the terrifying chicken himself.
Revisiting this beastie might be a trip down memory lane for you; it might ring bells of trauma reminding you of the day you felt one creep up your trouser leg or negotiated its antennae with your naked foot in one of your shoes. Either way, it’s a beautiful showcase of Nzimande’s skill and ability to hold focus and character with a gruelling piece.
The Ugly Noo Noo is directed by Peter Mitchell, written by and Andrew Buckland, and performed by Mpilo ‘Straw’ Nzimande. It is on at the Hilton Arts Festival on Saturday September 24 at 5:30pm and Sunday September 25 at 2:30pm in the Drama Centre.