South African theatre troupe retells classics around the world
Director Mark Dornford-May arrived in South Africa in 2000 intending to stay for eight weeks to direct two productions. He has lived there ever since, co-founding and serving as Artistic Director of the Isango Ensemble, a unique performance troupe that revisits familiar classics, infusing them with music and dance reflecting South African heritage.
“I fell in love with the place and people and have been living here for 14 years now. The forming of Isango was a reaction to my awe of the unbelievable talent in the country,” says Dornford-May. “I have been collaborating with many of the team from our original shows over those 14 years.”
The Isango Ensemble is based in Cape Town, formed by Dornford-May and Music Director and singer Pauline Malefane in 2000. Drawing performers primarily from the townships surrounding the city, the company embraces artists at all levels of experience, with senior artists leading and contributing to the growth of rising talents. The Ensemble’s work has focused on reimagining classics from the Western canon, finding a new context for the stories within a South African or township setting. However, Dornford-May does not consider the original works solely Western classics.
“All humanity starts in Africa and so all stories grow from Africa,” he says. “We recapture our stories in our way. We base our work on well-known versions of these stories so that an audience can see it through an African prism.”
Beginning September 12, Washington, D.C. audiences will have the opportunity to see these unique retellings when the Isango Ensemble arrives at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre for 12 performances. The Ensemble will be performing a repertory of its award-winning The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo, a retelling of Mozart’s opera featuring the score transposed for an orchestra of marimbas, and an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s epic poem Venus and Adonis, September 12-21.
Since its initial 2008 record-breaking run at the Young Vic in London, The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo has toured to sell-out houses internationally, winning awards including the 2008 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival and the Globes de Cristal for Best Opera in Paris. In a partnership with Shakespeare’s Globe, the Ensemble debuted its version of Venus and Adonis in 2012, returning again to perform it for an extended run in 2013.
Throughout the company’s travels, Dornford-May has marveled at the joy and exuberance with which audiences have embraced the work, remarking on the experience of seeing “Desmond Tutu dancing on stage with delight after a performance of The Magic Flute.”
Dornford-May feels that there is an innate and natural connection people make with The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo. In his program notes he references a Tsonga tradition, in which “lightning is caused by birds called the andlati. When a storm is brewing, they fly towards heaven and then dive out of the clouds towards earth, striking a tree, a house or a person causing death and fire in the middle of rain. The only way to prevent this bird from causing destruction is to find someone brave enough to climb into the mountains as the storm is breaking and to play on an enchanted flute…. The similarities are fascinating. Who knows? Maybe one of the greatest pieces of European opera had its roots and inspiration in a South African folk tale.”
And why begin the Isango Ensemble’s American tour at the Shakespeare Theatre Company? “Shakespeare in Washington!” says Dornford-May. “Well, always best to start in the center, no?”