There's no mystery why The Mysteries succeeds...

Review by David Munro

I DID not see the production in the West End of The Mysteries last year, so I came to Richmond Theatre quite unprepared for what I saw.

As everyone knows, the mystery, or miracle, plays were the progenitors of theatre, as we know it today in Britain and, indeed, Europe. Villagers and townsfolk performed them partly as an act of worship and partly to bring the Bible stories to life in a form that everyone could understand.

The interpretations of the biblical stories were portrayed against the background of local life, ideas and customs that gave a gloss to the rather austere writings of the old and New Testament.

This production is the Bible seen through the eyes of African mine workers and performed and illustrated in their local dialects and dance.

It is stunning. Despite the fact that practically every speech is incomprehensible to an English audience in that it switches dialect and language in mid-speech or even mid- sentence so that one is required to call on one's own knowledge of the stories to follow the events on stage, it is none the less quite comprehensible, extremely endearing and eventually compelling and moving.

The first half takes a brief scamper through the Old Testament, starting with a rather irascible and autocratic God ruling heaven and casting out Lucifer, who subsequently re-appears throughout the evening in a rather fetching red leather suit, a la Daredevil.

Then Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and Abraham all re-enact their stories with the minimum of scenery and, in the case of Adam and Eve, of clothes. The Ark is portrayed by a piece of trelliswork with a label "ARK" hung on it and the animals are imagined by the actors by sound and mime most believably.

Every now and again, the action is interrupted by a lively song and dance with all the characters good or evil joining in the fun. Rather surprisingly, Noah and his crew welcomed the dove's return with a rumbustuous rendering of 'You are my Sunshine', but it didn't seem to matter, it fitted in with the general framework of insouciance which permeated the whole evening.

After Abraham, the action jumped to the Nativity, where Mary was blessed with not only a son, but four midwives who celebrated the birth with a jolly dance, which made me wonder whether, even if there was no room at the Inn, there might have been a Disco.

The second half was New Testament time; Vumile Nopmanyama, who had played God (or 'Deus', as he was referred to throughout, although, in view of his continual interference in everyone's stories in the first act - 'ex-Machina' should have completed his title) then became Jesus. His mother, played and sung beautifully by Lungelwa Blou, taught him a little pat-a-cake sequence of movements by which he was able to select his Disciples and involve them in a rousing dance; an unusual form of male bonding, but apparently effective.

After a session with Lucifer, involving the playing of a penny whistle, which annoyed Lucifer, who, after all, has the best tunes and this definitely wasn't one of them, He forgave the woman taken in adultery whom, it seemed by her subsequent washing of his feet, was really Mary Magdalene and raised Lazarus by shouting at him to get up - much to the rage of Lucifer who tried to keep him in the grave by sitting on his head, but to no avail.

The mood of the evening changed with the Last Supper, very cleverly portrayed by a tablecloth held by two of the Disciples, the trial before Pilate and the Crucifixion.

This last was beautifully staged and extremely moving; the pain and poignancy as portrayed by Vumile Nomanyama was almost unbearable, he did it so well and so realistically.

After this exceptional piece of acting, the resurrection came almost as an anti-climax, but the evening ended with the cast, I think (as the language here did pose a bit of a problem) extolling the glory of God. Anyhow, it was a good tune and made a fitting close to a very stimulating evening.

As you may have gathered, there were no sets or glamorous costumes; what scenery there was, was brought on and off by members of the very talented and hardworking cast of 35, who also duplicated and triplicated the characters.

Their singing was virtually a Capella, accompanied by the beat of oil-drums and choral humming. There was a violin, which someone played at one stage in the evening, but one came away with the general effect of superb unaccompanied singing.

The direction, by Mark Dornford-May, concentrated on simplicity and naturalism; when I say simple, it was a simplicity which disguised sophistication. To call the result faux naïve is, perhaps, unkind but there was an art concealing art, which was very effective.

If you can take four African dialects, plus English and a little Latin which, as I have already indicated, do not detract from the pleasures of the evening, then this the show for you.

To me, there is no mystery why The Mysteries are so enjoyable. It is the enthusiasm of a cast who are clearly enjoying themselves and their enjoyment is infectious. Go and see it - and I shouldn't be a bit surprised if you weren't on your feet applauding wildly at the end, as the audience were the night I went. In fact, it would be a mystery to me if you didn't!

The Mysteries, Directed by Mark Dornford-May, Created by Mark Dornford-May and Charles Hazelwood; Choreographer Joe Mthethwa; Composer, Charles Hazelwood; Designers, Mark Dornford-May and Dan Watkins; Costumes by Leigh Bishop; Lighting by Mannie Manim WITH: Vumile Nonanyama, Andreas Mbali, Lungelwa Blou. Richmond Theatre until February 22.

RELATED LINKS: Click here for The Richmond Theatre website...