The classic opera La Bohème by Puccini has been reproduced in many languages and the latest has come to the Hackney Empire. An innovative reworking by the award winning Isango Ensemble of South Africa.
The production begins on Youth Day a winter public holiday held on the June 16 in South Africa. This commemorates the day when over 23 young people were killed in Soweto. Unofficially the real figure is put at 200. Set in the Townships of Cape town doomed lovers, Lungelo, played by Mhlekazi Whawha, and his love Mimi, played by Pauline Malefane meet and fall in love.
The hardships and friendships are accompanied by the award winning score of marimba and steel drums. The music with not a gap between is as captivating as the cast. When Mimi dies of tuberculosis the marimba which mimics her heartbeat also stops.
The company and the Hackney Empire have joined up with the the Global Fund to fight aids, tuberculosis and malaria. Many of the performers are from townships which “are amongst some of the world’s highest infection areas for TB”, while many of the company’s extended family members are “living with the realities of TB on a daily basis.”
Famed actor of both stage and screen Sir Ian Mckellen said ‘The Isango Ensemble is unique. I believe no other theatre group in the world so successfully brings old theatre classics into a modern, wholly African expression.”
The story is not all doom and gloom. The lively and enigmatic dance sequences are foot tapping and the comedy aspects of the play shine through. This performance is a must see for all even if you’re not an opera buff.
I spoke to some of the audience members at the Hackney Empire after the showing to gauge their reaction: