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Wednesday 5th December 2007
Christmas Theatre Review | THE MAGIC FLUTE / A CHRISTMAS CAROL | Young Vic Theatre

Production: The Magic Flute (Impempe Yomlingo) / A Christmas Carol (Ikrismas Kherol)
Playwright: Adapted by Mark Dornford-May from Mozart / Dickens
Words & Music: Mandisi Dyantyis, Mbali Kgosidintsi, Pauline Malefane, Nolufefe Mtshabe
Producer: Eric Abraham, The Young Vic & Isango/ Portobello
Venue: The Young Vic
Address: 66 The Cut, London SE1 8LZ
Box Office: +44 (0)20 7922 2922
Dates: 20 November 2007 - 19 January 2008 (A Christmas Carol) / 23 November 2007 - 19 January 2008 (The Magic Flute)
Opened: 29 November 2007
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Reviewed by Belinda Williams

At the Young Vic this festive season you will find the two family favourites, A Christmas Carol and The Magic Flute. And yet another hackneyed revival of the classics this isn't. Dickens and Mozart have travelled 6,012 miles to Cape Town, shaking off any staleness on the journey, and now they appear to us as Ikrismas Kherol and Impempe Yomlingo with a spectacularly multi-talented cast from the infamously poor township of Khayelitsha.

Dickens' tale of human redemption centres around a gold mine in South Africa where 'Cratchitt' works for peanuts and yet surfaces from the mines on Christmas Day with a smile on his face and good cheer for his fellow workers. Luthando Mthi gives a very strong performance as 'Cratchitt', as does the heart-breaking Poseletso Sejosingoe as 'Tiny Thembisa' a figure more likely to be crippled by AIDS than anything else, and yet, like her father, endlessly altruistic. In the title character of 'Scrooge' is Pauline Malefane (also playing the 'Queen of the Night' in The Magic Flute), who commands the stage with practised economy. In South Africa she is a decorated celebrity and came to international renown after starring as 'Carmen' in the film U-Carmen eKhayelitsha, also directed by Mark Dornford-May, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2005.

In this exuberant production, the multimedia flashbacks for Scrooge's visitations are handled well, as are the seamless glides from English to Xhosa, and all under the expert guiding hand of Dornford-May. But above all, what stands out in Ikrismas Kherol is the fantastic use of dance routines choreographed by Lungelo Ngamlana. From the first magical entry of the miners high above us in the lighting grid, illuminated only by the torches on their helmets, through spontaneous gum-boot dances, what we get is a real joie de vivre immune to the hardships of everyday life and all the more remarkable for that.

What Ikrismas Kherol achieves through dance, Impempe Yomlingo/The Magic Flute certainly surpasses through music. Mandisi Dyantyis conducts music that is essentially what Mozart wrote but with clever substitutions. Tamino's flute sounds with blast of the trumpet (played by Dyantyis), whilst Papageno's music-box is the tinkle of carefully filled glass bottles on strings. The overture is a triumph, as the complete movement is played on a host of marimbas (African xylophones). Elsewhere, Sarastros' men make their close harmony into all kinds of spirituals, or a calypso or bossanova rhythm will enliven the Three Spirits. The opera thus takes on a distinctly South African flavour, but the Mozart opera is still clearly visible beneath, and opera lovers will be pleasantly surprised by the calibre of operatic voices possessed by the leads. In particular Philisa Sibeko as 'Pamina' has an awesome lyric soprano sound, and I was left feeling sore that one of the few cuts made was her second aria, for her voice is worthy of any international opera house.

The magical element of Mozart's opera often jars with a certain post-Logical Western reserve, and so it feels so much more at home in the all-the-more spiritual setting of Mother Africa. Leigh Bishop uses her brilliant costume designs to fully ground the production in a timeless version of Africa. Here, Sarastro wears traditional African dress and propounds conventional values in a fantasy township of happy prosperity. Working for them as protectors are Monostatos and his band of game-keepers/Guerillas. Tamino, the faraway prince, has an altogether more tribal costume, and goes through rites of passage, similar to that of Xhosa boys, to be worthy of his love. Pamina's mother, The Queen of the Night, and her three ladies are the malign force of Voodoo in grass-skirt bustles and feathers, and all in all the wonderful costumes make geographical sense of a pie-in-the-sky story.

Both plays begin with the entire cast milling around onstage as the audience enter. They chat and joke as they might do pre-rehearsal, and, in doing so, take you first to the place where all the artistry onstage began life, and thence to the shanty townships marred by violence, unemployment, drug-abuse and abject poverty. That world-class artists can emerge from third-world conditions is fuel for not a little Christmas humility.

Belinda Williams 2007

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