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CONFESSIONS OF ZENO (article first published : 2002-07-11)

The collaboration between the Handspring Puppet Company and William Kentridge has produced ground-breaking works at the National Arts Festival since 1992 with dramatic productions such as Woyzeck on the Highveld, Faustus in Africa and Ubu and the Truth Commission. In 1998, they incorporated music with Il Ritorno d’Ulisses and this year’s festival features another opera, Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno.

Set in the early 1900’s, the production premiered at the KusntenFestival des Arts in Brussels in May 2002 and has received assistance from Marion Goodman Galleries.

Confessions of Zeno is multi-media theatre at its most exciting with Handspring’s inimitable puppet designer and founder member Adrian Kohler having created Indonesian shadow puppet-like silhouettes which were filmed on camera and then projected onto a large screen. The puppeteers were in full view of the audience – as was the Sontanga Quartet playing the music of contemporary South African-born musician Kevin Volans. This gave the opera a more exciting dimension as we saw the “working progress”, as it were.

The puppetry was brilliant. Onto a desolate landscape moved fantastical creatures: some striding with massive legs like electric pylons; jittery spindly creatures like demented branches or heavy animal images with wagging tails. The highlight for me was a stately dance of chairs.

The hero of Italo Svevo’s novel is Zeno who recalls landmarks of his life. He is portrayed with sustained conviction and understated elegance by David Minnaar, dressed in a crumpled suit with a cigarette firmly in his hand. The piece has a lot to do with smoking and the attempts to give it up. Surrounded by swirling smoke and often standing on a simple bed, David Minnaar ponders the death of his father and the loves of his life.

Zeno’s father is performed by Otto Maidi (bass) whose singing highly impressed me. Kevin Volans music is not easy to assimilate but it was well interpreted by Maidi with former University of Natal Durban students Lwazi Ncube and Joyce Mogoloagae as well as Pumeza Matshikiza and Linelle Wimbles.

With the combined brilliance of William Kentridge, Handspring Puppets and David Minnaar, Confessions of Zeno is a must-see. – Caroline Smart




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