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THE ZULU (article first published : 2000-12-23)

Review of The Zulu by Margaret von Klemperer (Natal Witness: December 13, 2000))

The Zulu's long-awaited arrival in Durban was somewhat dampened by Monday's downpour which kept King Goodwill Zwelithini from attending and meant that the Zulu dancers performing outside the theatre were horribly soggy and largely ignored as everyone made a beeline for shelter. But once inside, the weather could be forgotten as the audience were taken back 122 years.

Mbongeni Ngema has long been determined to tell the story of the Battle of Isandlwana as it was told to him by his great-grandmother and his grandfather. He has done so in an intriguing blend of stylised story-telling with roots deep in oral culture and glitzy high-energy song-and-dance routines which nod to the Broadway musical.

This could have been awkward, alternating periods of structured and somewhat static dialogue with set pieces for the chorus, dancers and band - who do an excellent job high up on a gallery behind the performers. However, once the production is into its stride, it is carried along by its pace - and by having a powerful tale to tell. Because Ngema has his eye on an overseas audience which may not know the history as well as his local one, there is a lot of storytelling to be done and in the first half most of this comes from interaction between Seipati Sothoane as the modern divine healer and Leleti Khumalo-Ngema as the spirit of Paulina Nomguqo Dkamini, the Swazi princess who was married to Cetshwayo.

Both give excellent performances and the by-play between them keeps the amount of information they have to get across digestible. But there is a certain irony in Ngema giving these two powerful female characters such a central role and at the same time emphasising that women must know their place in what is shown as a deeply patriarchal society. He also uses verbal and visual digs at women as sex objects to get a quick chuckle from the audience.

After the interval, the battle takes centre stage and the narrative thread moves largely into the hands of Simion Khambule (Brian Mazibuko), one of two survivors of Colonel Durnford's Natal Native Contingent. This is a clever move - he can describe the dramatic impact of the Zulu army appearing above the British and he also allows for credit to be paid to a brave enemy while Ngema's aim of reclaiming history for the Zulu people is carried forward.

The battle is shown through the medium of some incredibly energetic dancing which meshes particularly well with the storytelling in the second half. This way of dealing with Isandlwana is something of a relief for those of us who are squeamish about bloodshed, although the glorification of any battle is a potentially tricky subject.

The Zulu is high energy entertainment and a deliberate highlighting of a great moment in the history of the Zulu people and although there are a couple of moments when polemic intrudes on the action, the format generally works well. The show looks good - though I do have to question why some of the warriors wore tartan - and this is a polished production. (Margaret von Klemperer)

The Zulu runs at the Playhouse until December 31. Tickets are R35, available from Ticketweb outlets, www.ticketweb.co.za or phone (031) 369-9444.




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