For the second of its two shows at the Young Vic this Christmas season South African company Isango/Portobello presents a vibrant and uplifting version of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, with the music played on marimbas and the lyrics sung by a company of 30 singers, threaded together with the distinct pulse of black South African soul. Caroline Bishop attended the first night.
Mark Dornford-May’s production is a gloriously happy one. From the opening moments the whole company of singers and marimba-players have wide grins on their faces, revelling in the music they are creating on stage. They move in time to a rhythm that wouldn’t normally be associated with Mozart, yet somehow fits gloriously with the classic music that is here translated into a new form by the tone and the rhythm of the marimba.
Singing the story of Tamino – who is charged with rescuing Pamina from Sarastro by her mother, the Queen of the Night – is a group of talented singers who bring humour, sympathy and darkness to their roles. Pauline Malefane as the Queen of the Night fills the stage with her brooding, ominous presence, Medusa-like hair and powerful voice; Mhlekazi Andy Mosiea and Philisa Sibeko are both sweet and tough as the young lovers who endure trials together; Simphiwe Mayeki is a regal, wise Sarastro; and Zamile Gantana a wonderfully rotund and comical Papageno, Tamino’s friend and companion.
Added to these individual talents is the cumulative voice of the whole company, collectively infusing the production with a unique style, aided by the colourful and quirky costumes. The three spirits who help Tamino and Papageno in their quest are alternately dressed in black gowns, baby doll outfits and sixties-style suits as they pop up to sing their advice. Here, and throughout the production, the way in which Mozart’s lyrics have been altered adds a jaunty humour – a highlight being Papageno’s introduction to his female alter-ego, Papagena.
Fundamentally though, the production retains the same classic story of love triumphing over evil, which is only enhanced, not impeded, by the style in which it is translated here. In this feelgood show, which oozes warmth and happiness, the smiles on the faces of the cast are infectious.
The Magic Flute runs in repertoire with A Christmas Carol until 19 January.