The Bard, Britten bend to will of Isango Ensemble

Sinethemba Mdena and Pauline Malefane in Isango Ensemble's “A Mid-Summer Night's Dream.” Photo Credit: John Page

Sinethemba Mdena and Pauline Malefane in Isango Ensemble’s “A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream.” Photo Credit: John Page

BOSTON – The Bard’s text will always bend to the wishes of those who perform it. And, I suppose, that goes double even for a 1960 opera.

Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is perhaps his most whimsical piece, and thus works even when seen through a very different lens: that of the people of an African township.

Isango Ensemble’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” being performed in repertory with “UCarmen” at the Cutler Majestic Theatre under the auspices of ArtsEmerson through Nov. 22 , is a free-flowing adaptation of both the play and the 1960 opera by Benjamin Britten, under the direction of Isango’s artistic director Mark Dornford-May.

Isango Ensemble is a South African theatre company that draws its artists mainly from the townships surrounding Cape Town, and while the operatic voices are varied in their quality and timbre, their enthusiasm make that mostly irrelevant.

The vocals of the piece are mostly in a heavily-accented English but also in African languages as well; performers speak and sing in the Xhosa and Tswana languages at various points, changing among languages quickly and effortlessly.

The accompanimennt — played by instrumentalists performing with marimbas and djembes (drums) on either side of the stage – injects African rhythms into the score and, along with the choreography that also emphasizes native African dance, creates the total package of life in an African township.

If you are familiar with the storyline of “Dream,” you’ll have little problem following the tale of Oberon (Sinethemba Mdena), King of the Fairies, who works in tandem with his mischief-making servant Puck (played by a woman, Noluthando Boqwana), as the duo create chaos among four unsuspecting lovers, and also on Oberon’s wife, Titania (Isango co-founder Pauline Malefane), casting a spell on her that causes her to fall in love with the first person she meets: Bottom, a weaver whose head has been transformed into that of a donkey. It is impossible not to be entranced by the corporeal Bottom (Zamile Gantana, a bass/baritone ), as well as the pixieish Boqwana as Puck.

Because of the switching languages, it’s best to be well-acquainted with the storyline before you see the show; two theater-goers behind me at a recent performance came upon a synopsis of the play at intermission in the program and allowed “we should have read this before the show.”

I’m not sure it would have helped as a free-flowing mix of text, vocals and choreography can cause the storyline to disappear at times in a blur of African rhythms.

Mark Dornford-May has adapted and directed the production with Pauline Malefane as a co music-director with Mandisi Dyantyis.

ArtsEmerson presented a production of Isango’s take on Mozart’s “A Magic Flute” to critical acclaim in October 2014 and once again the troupe has put its stamp on an iconic work.

Indeed, both The Bard and Britten have bent to the will of these South Africans determined to make the play and the opera their own.

The Isango Ensemble production of “A Mid-Summer’s Night Dream,”, Adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May. Music arranged by Mandidi Dyantyis. Choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana. Lioghting by Chloe Kenward. http://www.artsmerson.org.

 

 

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