A Christmas Carol/The Magic Flute @ Young Vic, London

adapted and directed by
Mark Dornford-May
There’s something about this time of year that makes clichs more palatable. For many, the imminence of Christmas triggers a desire for comfort and the familiar and, in the main, this is what we are supplied with, by supermarkets, by television stations – by theatres.

So kudos then to the Young Vic for doing something different and celebrating the season by staging reinterpretations of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Mozart’s The Magic Flute by the South African Isango/Portobello company.

While the source material is as traditional as it gets, the two shows, both adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May, have not simply had their narratives transplanted to a an African setting, but have been reworked in a more profound fashion, with their take on A Christmas Carol in particular attempting to address life in the townships of modern South Africa.

In this first production, Pauline Malefane takes on the role of Scrooge, who is here a mining company owner with no qualms about telling the limping Tiny Thembisa: if you’re dying, get on with it and decrease the surplus population.”

She is, in accordance with the story, visited by three ghosts, the first of which, a lady in a prim white suit, shows her images of her impoverished childhood. These are projected on a white screen across the back of the stage and have been shot on digital video. They reveal that Scrooge lost her mother at a young age and that she had a sister who was forced into prostitution in order to support them both. The young Scrooge wanted to be a singer but abandoned her dreams, and something of her humanity, as she grew older and wealthier.

However the deeper they delve into her back-story, the more tied up in itself the production becomes, which is a shame since it begins with one of the most visually and aurally arresting opening sequences I’ve seen in a while. A group of miners, guided by the torch beams of their helmets, stomp down from the galleries above the stage, using chains and drums to replicate the cacophony of life in the mine. But though the show is never quite able to match the power of these opening moments, it remains an exciting theatrical experience, full of percussive exuberance and emotional uplift. And it never loses sight of the moral heart of the story, hammering home its points about ignorance and want without hectoring the audience.

The second production is a less episodic affair. In the company’s hands The Magic Flute becomes a compelling tale of tribal rights of passage as Tamino, having fallen in love with Pamina, is forced to endure various trials.

Malefane is again impressive as the Queen of the Night and she is supported by excellent vocal performances all round, with Zamile Gantana particularly entertaining as Papageno. The story is staged with the same level of musical and visual inventiveness, and is permeated by a sense of joy that is infectious.

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