A bathing-suited Noah with a ladder for an ark? Hard-hatted angels in boiler suits? An eight-foot Adam? Isango Portobello tells Bible stories like no-one else in The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso.
The Chester Mystery Plays have a history that harks back to around the 14th century, when crafts guilds would stage the stories from the back of carts. The Laurence Olivier Award-winning South African company’s lively retelling of these famous Biblical tales shares that ethos, appearing minimal and homemade in many of its props and designs, giving the appearance of locals using what they can to tell tales.
It adds to the feeling of a show which is somehow both raw and polished. Where else in the West End would musical accompaniment come from playing a glass of water or swinging some tubing?
At the show’s centre, the irresistible Pauline Malefane plays both God and Jesus. She is a creator who demands to be believed in, bringing terror with her wide-eyed stare, peace and love with a simple, heart-warming smile, and appearing truly, painfully hurt when betrayed by Adam and Eve, like a mother disappointed in a lying child.
Around her, the 30-strong cast takes on multiple roles to tell the various stories, which include; a hilarious take on a brow-beaten Noah and his stubborn, unhelpful wife, a two-minute tour through the lineage of the old testament, and a harrowing crucifixion. Throughout, the cast impress with their vocal talents, raising the Garrick theatre’s roof with their songs performed, for the most part, with only percussion accompaniment. The heavenly host really does have the voices of angels.
It would take a talented multi-linguist to understand every word in the show – it is performed in English, Xhosa, Tswana, Afrikaans, Zulu and Latin – but as the stories are so well known, the differing tongues become not a barrier, but another layer to a piece which revels in its vitality and vibrancy.