It is hard for New Zealand audiences to comprehend the lives of people like Asad Abdullahi – as portrayed in A Man of Good Hope. But a standing ovation from a captivated crowd on opening night at Auckland Arts Festival showed that kiwi audiences are hungry for such stories.
Our images of Africa are too much shaped by our experience of it on the screen either through the news or documentaries, and our narratives of the continent come from deeply colonial roots. But Isango Theatre Company, working in collaboration with the UK’s Young Vic, brings a new perspective and a very real story. They are a living breathing entity formed in part by performers hailing from the very townships in South Africa where the action takes place.
White South African author Jonny Steinberg met Abdullahi and wrote a book about his extraordinary journey through Africa, and his seemingly endless struggles to survive amidst political upheavals, personal tragedies, and deep prejudice. Isango Theatre Company has reinterpreted this book through their own lens, creating a musical-cum-opera fizzing with the music which spans a continent, very aware of itself and expertly performed.
Three separate performers (including exceptionally talented child actor Phielo Asakhe Makitle) portray the character of Asad, a Somali refugee forced from his home and country. As his life and struggles progress, helpful political context is given to explain the situations which force Asad and others like him from place to place. Heavy topics are delicately treated by sensitive performances and expertly crafted musical accompaniment, much of it vocal.
It is the music that makes this show, with arrangements which are at times surprising, discordant, heavenly, tender, and devastating. The harmonies produced by this ensemble, who have collaborated on many projects before this, are a true highlight – close your eyes and drink in the tightly-wound yet seemingly effortlessly produced sound. It is not something you are likely to hear often here in Aotearoa, so the opportunity is one to be savoured.
A few things don’t quite hit the mark in the show, namely the length. The show spans well over two hours and includes many phrases and scenes which do little to add to the narrative. As in traditional opera, much of the dialogue is sung and at times overstated and repeated. This is a show which requires you to sit back and go on the journey, but you cannot be blamed if your mind begins to wander at times.
Some tough topics are explored, and emotions are certainly stirred up throughout the performance. It is fair to say that you will leave wanting to know more – about Asad, about the history of post-colonial Africa and post-democracy South Africa.
Overall, come for the music and the experience of a show that is out of your usual context and comfort zone.
Reviewed by Steph Bean.