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LUNGILE - THE MOST BEAUTIFUL GIRL IN THE LAND (article first published : 2006-09-30)

In the performance I saw of Lungile – The Most Beautiful Girl in the Land, the youngest member of the audience was undoubtedly 14-month old Swan Robertson. Seated a couple of rows in front of her was a grey-haired lady of about 70 who might possibly have been the oldest. When I willed myself to tear my eyes reluctantly away from the stage to watch audience reaction, as I always do, the expression on these two faces mirrored the sheer enjoyment of the rest of the audience.

Lungile – The Most Beautiful Girl in the Land marks the first – and hopefully, not the last - collaboration between the two co-directors: internationally-renowned story-teller and author Gcina Mhlophe and multi-award-winning choreographer, Mark Hawkins. It is a stage adaptation of a story from Gcina Mhlophe’s best-selling collection, Stories of Africa, and her CD, Stories and Songs of Africa, songs from which are included in the production.

Lungile is played by Zinhle Gumede whose maturity of expression and capacity for underplayed comedy produced an endearing and lovable young girl who refuses to accept any suitor until the bird of her dreams announces the one she must choose. She’s light as gossamer and as free as the swirls of her skirt. Always a good performer, Welile Tembe was elegant and articulate in her role as the narrator. Playing other members of Lungile’s village are Louise Fraquet, Angela Lardant and Hlengiwe Mbatha.

Quinton Ribbonaar was amusing as the bashful suitor; Sanele Mzinyane lively and energetic as the jiving suitor, and Siyanda Duma superior and imposing as the rich suitor. Siyanda had a major asset, though. The longest and most magnificent pheasant feather I’ve ever seen adorned his headdress. It was a brilliant mirror of his body movements and an inspired choice from the costume co-ordinator. Tall and engaging with an impressive stick fighting display, Sphelele Nzama struck the right note as the chosen husband! The bird puppet is by Peter Court.

While Lungile is a simple and charming tale on the surface, it’s a production on a highly sophisticated scale as it involves audiovisual media and fusion fashion. The ever-versatile Loft is transformed into a crisp ethereal space with white floor and curtaining. This means that when the movie section starts, there are no other distracting elements. The “movie” is an audiovisual backdrop to the action created by Michael Cross and it focuses strongly on the imagery of birds which are the main focus of the story. Images of the Maasai and the vast landscapes in Kenya were stirring reminders of the home of my upbringing.

It’s a very tricky process to follow: creating visual imagery on screen (a hugely powerful and hypnotic medium) that doesn’t pull focus from the live performance. At times, this one comes dangerously close but Michael has been fairly non-specific and there are some beautiful clips ranging from birds in flight to close-ups on plumage. The AV equipment is sponsored by Gearhouse.

The aforementioned costume co-ordinator is stylist Derrick Mhlongo who has skilfully created a magical array of costumes from designers such as Sibu Msimang, Darkie, Khoni Manyathi, Amanda Laird Cherry, Colleen Eitzen, A.J.A.J.com, Arnreuby and Andrew Verster. They represent a wonderful fusion of the traditional and the contemporary, most effectively portrayed in the successful suitor’s outfit of traditional circlet headdress, hide beshu and itshitshi as well as contemporary brown t-shirt with metallic gold spots and cotton trousers with screen-printed motif. Sounds hectic? It worked!

Lungile – The Most Beautiful Girl in the Land is presented by the Playhouse and runs in the Playhouse Loft until October 7. Tickets R45 (R30 children). Book on 031 369 9596 or 031 369 9540 or at Computicket. For sold performances at extra special discounted rates, call Mala Govender on 031-369 9456. Don’t miss it! – Caroline Smart




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