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1906 BHAMBADA (article first published : 2006-12-13)

Mbongeni Ngema's new full-scale musical, 1906 Bhambada - The Freedom Fighter, is currently at the Winston Churchill Theatre for a 16 day run, part of a fine-tuning process that is also scheduled to see the play travel to Empangeni before its official launch at Pretoria's State Theatre next year.

Ngema invited the press to the theatre one night last week, with the proviso that this is work-in-progress and not ready to be reviewed. It is common practice overseas to tour outside the major centres with a new play before opening on the West End or Broadway and it is not a problem to overlook rough edges - a harsh sound mix or a wandering spotlight will be sorted out soon enough. However, it seems fair to comment on the structure of the play, and one or two other issues.

1906 has been billed as "edutainment", commissioned specifically to commemorate the centenary of the 1906 uprising and Ngema has received backing and considerable funding, variously reported as four or five million rand, from the Premier's office. Historical research for the project was carried out by a team led by former academic and one time IFP and then Nadeco representative, Professor Jabulani Maphalala, who also served as an expert on Zulu culture on the committee that chose the King Cetshwayo portrait for the Tatham Art Gallery.

The use of the spelling "Bhambada" in the title and on posters is explained in the work as a rejection of the Anglicised "Bhambatha". The history of what happened in 1906 is currently under the spotlight with traditionally accepted colonial accounts being treated to a reassessment. It is fertile ground for new interpretations, and a theatrical telling of the story is a way of bringing the events to a wide public, particularly school audiences, who have been getting reduced ticket prices.

No-one would go to The Sound of Music for an account of the Anschluss, or to South Pacific to trace the history of the war against Japan. The theatre has needs of its own, but calling 1906 "edutainment" does put an onus of accuracy on the show. So I was a little startled to be informed that the events of 1906 saw the invention of guerrilla warfare, Bhambada "using it before Che Guevara". The northern European tribes who fought the Romans or the Spanish patriots who fought Napoleon's forces and gave their name to this kind of warfare might also be surprised.

In order not to bog down in delivering a dry account, Ngema has balanced his historical narrative with a fictional love story - and, at least at this stage of the show's development, this presents a problem of structure. It is only after the interval that the two strands begin to mesh together.

Before then, they are separate story lines, and just as the audience begins to get hooked into one, they are whipped off to the other. This needs some tweaking to bring a sense of unity to the work. Another, minor, quibble is the costume the actress playing Hariette Colenso is forced to wear. It makes her look like a particularly whimsical illustration of Little Bo Peep in a book of nursery rhymes, hooped skirts, frilled bonnet and all.

There is no doubt that on the night I saw the show, the large audience loved every minute of the three hours plus - this is a story that resonates. Ngema has used his trademark mix of song, dance, spectacle and burlesque action to tell his tale. It is a style that leaves almost no room for characterisation - 1906 Bhambada makes for an all-singing, all-dancing kind of history lesson.

There are numerous costume changes - and some of the outfits are stunning, even if not very 1906 - and plenty of humour to keep things moving. I would like to see the dance routines cut a little, particularly at the beginning, to get the story moving, but Ngema's big cast has been well drilled and cope easily with the Churchill Theatre's restricted stage. Music from the live band on stage ranges from Mshini Wami to Gospel.

Seemingly inevitably, an Mbongeni Ngema production has to be enlivened by offstage drama. The company originally announced as in charge of sound and lighting are no longer part of the production, apparently due to unhappiness over the financial arrangements. The accommodation provided for the cast when they first arrived in town proved unsuitable - and the state of the theatre before 1906 moved in was alarmingly run down. That has been attended to, although a full-scale refurbishment is needed if the venue is going to be used regularly.

As has already been reported, and is causing a debate, when Ngema came on stage to take his bow with the cast - and was rapturously received - he suggested the time is ripe for a name change for the theatre. I would support that; calling a theatre after anyone with no theatrical links has never made sense to me.

For more information, contact Committed Artists on 031 307 3723. - Margaret von Klemperer




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