Review: Musical theatre triumph – breaking new territory in South African musical theatre with Tsotsi, the Musical.
Robyn Cohen – The Cape Robyn
This Cape Town Opera production is on until February 17. Date alert: I write this tonight Saturday, February 10 and Feb 17 is not far away. Go while you can.
This production is based on the story by Athol Fugard. It is not a recreation of the novel or the award winning film by Gavin Hood (won the Oscar for best foreign language film in 2005). The creative team – headed by Mkhululi Mabija (writer/librettist) and composer Zwai Bala (member of kwaito group TKZee) – have re-visioned the story (originally set in the 50s in Sophiatown) to contemporary South Africa: Soweto 2018. Co-directors Khayelihle Dominique Gumede and Neil Coppen have assembled narrative arcs – in jumps and starts – folding onto each and over and around. Stunning directorial collaboration here. The primary narrative remains: the gang person, Tsotsi, finding himself holding a baby, after a botched mugging. But the story has been threaded with references and layers which resonate in our contemporary landscape: township people crushed on trains as they trek in and out to the city – clinging on for their lives; lack of service delivery; The Red Ants eviction squads. Cyril Ramaphosa is mentioned as Moses – to redeem the poor? Mobile phones appear.
In my view, it is a remarkable production. Here is a newly brewed musical – or let’s say boiled – it is on the boil – it is urgent and dark: a seamless integration of narrative and music. It is the sound and the fury signifying- everything. The script is astounding. ‘Where are you from?’ Nowhere. ‘Don’t you feel?’ No. The leitmotif in the first half is bleak: the taxman of life is lurking and everything has a price. Kill or be killed. Survival is the word and there is no space to ‘feel’. Or is there? A baby reawakens feelings in Tsotsi. The baby takes the form of a puppet – looks real, sounds real (shout out to Janni Younge and Craig Leo).
Last week, I used the word ‘chilling’ to describe Mike van Graan’s When Swallows Cry and watching Tsotsi – yes, chilling comes up again. It is a bleak, chilling landscape that we are presented with –particularly in the first half. The township is framed by the Joburg skyline – so near and yet so far. Things have not exactly moved on for the majority of black South Africans, from the 50s. Often on stage, township “life” is presented as a glamourized violin: shack chic – scenes we’d like to see. We watch and we know it’s bad but look – its glam and thrilling – within the bad.
In Tsotsi, it is very much shack land we are seeing – unvarnished and bare. The Hillbrow Tower is there as a beacon – of hope; of the big city or what? The soundscape (Marcel Bezuidenhout) evokes the rain and hail pounding onto the tin shacks. You can almost smell the air – and the smog – (superb video design Kirsti Cumming). The cast is a wow. Hip-hop artist Mxolisi ‘Zuluboy’ Majozi stars as Tsotsi – brill. The supporting cast includes Msizi Njapha, Busisiwe Ngejane, Bianca Le Grange (our Cape Town gal – fab), Kgomotso Matsunyane, Katlego Letsholonyana, Thembisile Ntaka, Royston Stoffels (that fantastic voice and diction – from Aunty Merle, The Musical to this!); Lindani Nkosi, Ayanda Nhlangothi and Nhlanhla Mahlangu. The choreography rips and riffs off the narrative (Sonia Radebe) and costumes by Noluthando Lobese are extensions of the characters– they are not dressed for a Broadway/West End musical but in clothes that we recognise.
This afternoon, I saw people who saw the musical last night and didn’t like it. They didn’t like the music. Toot dark, too whatever. It is personal. I get that. The musical score in my opinion is astounding. Zwai’s range and references are mind blowing: drawing on kwaito, hip hop, township jazz, plus plus. I was holding my breath – listening to the remarkable score. A shout out to Amanda Tiffin for the orchestration. A stunner of a score.
Yes, the first half is bleak, bleak – that’s how it is for millions of South Africans struggling to survive in shanty towns on the fringes of big cities- but visuallly and aurally it is riveting. In the 2nd half, the ‘light’ – a glimmer of light pushes through as Tsotsi is able to ‘feel’ and find compassion through his interaction with Miriam – a mother with a baby – who nurtures him. There is hope – which people can change. Maybe. If they encounter good people. The mothers can do so much to nurture their young – or not. All up, I am bowled over by this musical which mashes up genres and conjures up a vivid slice of SA township life. Bravo to Team Tsotsi, Cape Town Opera, funding from the Lotteries and others who came on board. People in the USA are going mad over Hamilton – the musical. I hope that Tsotsi, the musical tours abroad and finds a wider audience. Standing ovation – screaming ovation and bursts of applause during the show.
*Tickets for Tsotsi, the Musical are R125-R280. Book at Computicket.