Edinburgh International Children’s Festival – Mbuzeni
Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 30 May 2018 [run ends 31st]
***** (5 stars)
How do you describe Koleka Putuma’s show? It was fascinating trying to work out what was going on, with the dialogue in a language [Xhosa] which I don’t speak, and the culture [black South African] totally outwith my experience. Some of what was said was translated, much of it was no: it’s really interesting to watch someone telling a story, complete with gestures, without having a clue what they’re talking about!
An old woman tells us of four orphan girls who live on one side of the village cemetery: the villagers live the other side, and strongly disapprove of the strange goings-on of these four girls. They play funerals: they solemnly dig a grave, inter the body, pray over it, deliver sermons, and sing hymns, doing it differently each day, while a black crow watches and caws malevolently. In one girl’s nightmares veiled figures come for her and the black crow flaps its wings: the others continue to insist that she play the part of the corpse, and run away leaving her buried, even though they have promised not to.
This girl has a pink hair comb, to which she is deeply attached – one day it drops out of her hair, but she doesn’t realise this until she is back home. The others say they will go with her to get it in the morning, but she wakes in the night and goes to fetch it. When the other girls realise where she has gone and go to fetch her they find her conducting a funeral service for it. The black crow caws again as they return home: in her dreams that night black crows come for her, and in the morning she is dead. The other girls go to the village to ask for help, but every door is slammed in their faces: the old woman returns, silently picks up the dead girl’s shoes and hair wreath, wraps them in her mantilla, and carries them out to the cemetery, where the other three girls bury them and then sing a spine-chilling lament for their departed sister.
The four performers – Thumeka Mzayiya, Awethu Hleli, Sisipho Mbopa and Nolufefe Ntshuntshe – perfectly captured the body language and behaviour of adolescent girls: the love-hate relationships, the teasing, the mocking, the jockeying for position, the underlying affection and particularly the bond between the four who have each suffered in some way before ending up together in the middle of nowhere. There was much laughter at some of the black humour and the teenage bitching: it was both touching and funny when each girl in turn described their personal heaven, so very different from the near-hell they were enduring on earth. The singing was incredible, amazing four-part harmonies with immense power to move – hymns, songs of great joy, and the heart-breaking threnody with which the play ended. The simple set and tall grass-woven chain-link fencing showed the bleak world in which the girls lived – the bare surface on which they slept, the rough ground over which they crept and shuffled to get to the cemetery, and the unforgiving village to which they turned for help.
This was absorbing, visually striking, and musically superb: and at the same time frustrating because I couldn’t fully understand what was going on, or why. Others in the audience may have been equally confused, but nonetheless applauded loudly and appreciatively.
Edinburgh International Children’s Festival – Mbuzeni Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh Run ends 31st May.