No bread? Eat cake!

I am woman, fear me! Sanelisiwe Mkhalipi in a scene from Sibikwa’s 1789. Photograph by Herman Verwey.

VERY OCCASIONALLY, YOU feel that sense of privilege in the presence of an artwork that brings tears and goosebumps. From the very first roll of the snare drum with the thunder of a jembe and a dun-dun behind it, Sibikwa’s 1789 will have you transfixed. It’s immersion theatre like nothing you may have experienced before, and it will take your heart and spirit and shift it all seismically for an unspeakably fine 90 minutes. It performs at Sibikwa Arts Centre in Benoni until 23 July.

This is a tale of the French Revolution, as the date that titles the work indicates. But it is not a French story being moored in Benoni. This is about the notion of revolution, that draws from the grand narrative in 18th century France but is translatable politically into every other revolutionary situation you may have encountered or read about, since. Whether you’re thinking of apartheid South Africa or contemporary Israel, 19th century Russia or the deep South of America, the basic narrative lines are there – about rich and poor, the haves and have-nots. The crude stereotypes of the badly done by and its toxic and hypocritical leadership are drawn. And with Mlindeli Zondi in the complex and caricaturish role of King Louis XVI, who could ask for anything more.

With extraordinary costumes that reek old French values, making you feel as though you’ve stepped into a novel by Victor Hugo or one by Charles Dickens, or a painting by Eugène Delacroix or Jacques-Louis David, down to the cobbles drawn on the floor, and the soiled petticoats of the women, the work is impeccable. Split into five wooden stages, large enough for a groundswelling of angry women, and small enough for you to perch on, as an audience member, the piece sucks you in, body and soul, as you enter the space.

And thus, amid perfect coordination of space and movement, song and choreography which is at once violent and empathetic, you become a member of the common folk and play an intrinsic role in the telling of the story, because of your sheer presence. But this is not a clean historical journey. Like Alfred Jarry’s Ubu, the work is angrily cast in obscenities and fierceness that reaches beyond the boundaries of history books and inflames you with a sense of justice and makes you want to raise the cudgels and take up the flags in the name of what you deem to be right and just and true. Indeed, Sibusiso Mkhize has an Ubu-like infectiously mad bravado that gives a burlesque and scary spin to the tale. Unlike any other audience participatory work in today’s theatre, the interface between cast and audience here is gentle and respectful, even though the story being told is neither.

But further to everything, there is Zevangeli Mampofu. Shorter in stature than many of the cast, this young performer has an operatic presence that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up as her voice comes into its own and holds the whole environment in a moment. As the work rolls out with its vulgarity and beauty, unfairness and disparities in values, it is clear that Silindile Mdlankomo uses language differently to her peers. Her presence on stage and in ensemble is simply awesome and enriching to the entire work.

Yet, there is more. There is balance and the reflection that revolution begets revolution and that progress only becomes possible after a constitutional shift in value, from all sides of the conflict. While some of the smaller narrative lines are not completely clear if you don’t have a rudimentary knowledge of the intricacies of the French Revolution, from the value of the Bastille to the Tennis Court Oath, the basic tensions between the ordinary guy in the street, and the hollow promises of the fraudulent ruling figures ring larger than life. The drawing up of the Constitution, amid voices from all quarters, is one of the central nubs to the piece, as is the women’s plight in the face of poverty and hardship.

One word of warning, however: If you are sensitive to direct light shining on you, choose your seats with care. There are certain positions in the theatre space in which the light beams hit the audience in the eye, bruising its ability to see everything with clarity.

This production unequivocally raises the bar for theatre in South Africa. It shines with a rich and uncompromising skill in design, performance and professional give-and-take. When you see Théatre du Soleil among the work’s credits, you may think you’re in for a kaleidoscope of acrobatics and leaps of faith and you are, but not in the traditional sense. While premised on an historical understanding of the environment of the circus, this is also a work complicated by nuance and history, South African texture and a showcasing of skills that are not limited to leaping through the air and cheating gravity. In short, it redefines what theatre should be in this world. And though deeply violent, it is an act of collaborative love.

  • 1789 is an original collective creation by Théatre du Soleil, led by Ariane Mnouchkine and translated by Amélia Parenteau. It is directed by Phyllis Klotz and Smal Ndaba and features creative input by Lehlogonolo Bapi Musi and Bongiwe Musa (musical direction), Toni Morkel (movement direction), Wilhelm Disbergen (Costume, lighting and set), Gladman Balintulo (sound design) and it is stage-managed by Leigh-Anne Nanguia. It is performed by Vuyokazi Boqwana, Sandile Dhladhla, Lehlogonolo Kganane, Filhliwe Madisa, Zevangeli Mampofu, Mpho Mnisi Mashiqa, Luyanda Masilela, Given Mayisela, Masiza Mbali, Nomsa Mbatha, Sibusiso Mkhize, Derick Mokone, Sanelisiwe Mkhalipi, Silindile Mdlankomo, Thato Moeketsi, Manqoba Ndlangamandla, Tshepiso Ndlovu, Khanyisile Ngwabe, Siphiwe Nkabinde, Thato Segodi, Lesego Thabethe, Zamokuhle Thwala, Mlindeli Zondi and Joel Zuma, at the Sibikwa Arts Centre, 13 Liverpool Road, Benoni South, until 23 July.

4 replies »

  1. Really interesting review. Just a question : « acrobatics » and « defying gravity « ? Perhaps there’s been a confusion between the Theatre du Soleil (the creators of 1789) and the Cirque du Soleil which is a circus company that has no connection…

    • Excellent comment, Nisha. Thank you for pointing this out! I will amend my review so that it is clear.

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