Review: ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in Isango Ensemble’s South African Setting


According to Music Africa Awake reporter

Benjamin Britten fussed over the details of his operas, working hard to get every vocal line, pungent chord and instrumental color exactly as he wanted. What might he have thought of the very freely adapted production of his 1960 opera, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” by the South African company Isango Ensemble, which opened on Friday at the New Victory Theater?

The production, inventively directed by Mark Dornford- May, “features” Britten’s music, as a news release puts it, in a staging that re imagines the opera as an African folk tale in a township setting rich with magic, exuberance and confusion. Stretches of the score are tossed out; choral odes and dances from South African traditions are folded in; vocal lines are sung mostly in English but also in Zulu, Xhosa and Tswana; the orchestra is turned into a mesmerizing ensemble of marimbas, drums and percussion; and Britten’s vocal lines are often accompanied by droning marimba tremolos and ululating choristers.

I bet that Britten, who was fascinated by music of other cultures, would have loved this production. The Isango Ensemble presented an acclaimed adoption of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” last year at the New Victory Theater, which specializes in works for children and families. The company mostly draws its members from the townships surrounding Cape Town. Though the vocal techniques of the singers in this “Midsummer” are variable, that hardly matters, given the vitality of this appealing cast.

The action is presented atop a plain raked platform, with the instrumentalists to the sides. Oberon, king of the fairies (Sinethemba Mdena, a countertenor), and Tytania, his queen (Pauline Malefane, a soprano, also a music director of the production), look mystically regal in their African robes adorned with feathers and beads. Puck, the boyish sprite who serves Oberon (here played by a dynamic actress, Noluthando Boqwana), becomes in this concept an impish, stealthy character shuffling about the stage. Puck routinely summons a chorus of fairies who dance and sing ecstatically yet seem a little threatening as they twirl their magical brooms of bound-up twigs.

At first I wondered how the children in attendance were going to grapple with this production. Some performers sing in heavily accented English; and now and then everyone breaks into African languages for stretches of spoken dialogue.

I can’t imagine that the younger children seeing this show will make sense of the romantic entanglements between the young couples in a crucial strand of the plot, confusions made worse when Puck starts altering their affections with magical herbs. Yet children all around me seemed amused by the scenes of the quarreling lovers and laughed outright during the charming episodes when amateur players rehearse and perform their hapless version of “Pyramus and Thisbe.” The standout in these scenes was the antic, barrel-chested bass-baritone Zamile Gantana as Bottom, the weaver, and the audience favorite.

With this inventive adaptation the Isango Ensemble claims Britten’s work on its own terms. Rightly so. If Britten could turn a Shakespeare play into a 20th-century British opera, why shouldn’t this ensemble turn that opera into a 21st-century South African theater piece?

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