The three stages of greatness

2011-07-15 10:36

Standing in the dock – apartheid’s gallery of rogues leering down at them, the judge sitting dumb behind them – the trio’s voices ring out.

The powerful operatic notes roll through the almost-empty theatre, filling every nook and cranny.

Coupled with the words the three men are singing – their vocals raise goosebumps on my arms – is Nelson Mandela’s speech at the Rivonia Trial set to Peter Louis van Dijk’s soaring music.

It’s a Friday morning and the cast of The Mandela Trilogy are hard at rehearsals in Cape Town’s Opera Theatre at Artscape. Without the 1 500-strong audience, it’s a little eerie.

As Madiba’s 93rd birthday approaches, the timing is perfect for director Michael Williams to launch this show, which has matured and developed from last year’s African Songbook, a show that was put on in Cape Town during the World Cup.

“Classical literature is riven with Mandela’s story,” says Williams of his story, which follows the narrative arc of countless classic literary tales.

The hero is removed from his home and people; he must make it through a series of trials while his home is wrecked by a terrible injustice; he then returns, forged by adversity, and sets things right.

The Mandela Trilogy stars three fine singing and acting talents – Aubrey Poo, Aubrey Lodewyk and Thato Machona – each of whom stars as Madiba at a different point in his story.

Williams explains that he has taken three defining moments in Mandela’s life – his initiation, when he’s told that there’s no future for him in his own country; his time in Sophiatown as a lawyer and when his marriage is falling apart; and finally, the part we all know so well, his trial, imprisonment and release.

“This is not a documentary; it’s not a movie. It is three emotional moments in his life – it’s toe-tapping and it includes some grand ceremonial pieces.

“It’s not a hagiography to him, we show his flaws and that he’s just a man. We tell the story, and it’s an interpretation of that story,” says Williams.

To tell the story, Williams used three composers – Allan Stephenson, who wrote the music for the first act (the words are in isiXhosa and the music is choral in its inspiration); Mike Campbell composed the jazzy music for the second act in Sophiatown; and for the third Williams, whose background is in opera, went for an operatic idiom.

The opera best fits with the idea of a big finish. Though, unlike so many stories in the genre, this one ends well. For Williams, creating original South African operas is an important part of his work. His previous works include Buchuland, The Milkbird and Child of the Moon.

The previous incarnation of The Mandela Trilogy, African Songbook, was, he says, the result of Cape Town opera’s question: what is our response to 2010? And the answer was unequivocally “Madiba”.

Wonderfully talented artist Gloria Bosman, who was also part of African Songbook, plays the role of Sophiatown singer and shebeen queen Dolly Rathebe, with whom Mandela had an affair – something that not everyone knows.

Bosman says: “It is not really common knowledge; it’s not something people talk about. The picture of Madiba is of him as a leader, but Michael portrays him as a man. His frolicking side.”

Bosman says that she did a lot of research into the middle part of Mandela’s life, and her initial squeamishness at playing the “other woman” was lessened as her understanding of this time in both Mandela and Rathebe’s lives grew.

“A 45-year-old man is attractive and women are attracted to power. In the same way, Dolly was fascinating. She was an independent woman who owned a shebeen. She’s one of the people I looked up to as a kid.

“She did wait for him in a way. She never married, she had a slight obsession, but not a nasty one. She never spoke of the affair.”

Bosman says that the second act uses the freer musical style of jazz to explore Mandela’s own time of experimentation.

She says: “He was finding himself as a person, as a man, and not just as a leader. So he tried to taste everything – which is natural for everyone. Some might be reluctant to speak about it. But it must be looked at holistically.

“I felt I needed to know as much as possible so I’d know how to approach the role.”

For Bosman, seeing Mandela as he was during his Sophiatown days is made easier by the fact that handsome actor Poo takes this Mandela role.

Poo, whose last role was as Curtis in the brilliant but doomed Dreamgirls, is a little star-struck to be singing with Bosman. “I am singing alongside Gloria Bosman,” he says. “I have to pinch myself and ask: ‘Is this really happening?’”

Poo says that while he doesn’t get to explore the tormented Mandela, like his namesake Lodewyk does in the third act, or to chart the dawning of his political activism like Machona does, he is more than happy to be at the centre of the musical-theatre element of the show.

“For me, it’s about not being too clever. To just tell the story,” he says.

Lodewyk, the most seasoned of the singers, is a trained opera singer who realises that his part is, in some ways, the most difficult because it’s the part of the story most people know by heart.

He says: “It’s exciting, but the scary part is he is still alive and people know and love his stories. I am nervous, but excited.”

But as Lodewyk sings, that nervousness is nowhere to be seen and his incredible vocals command attention, drawing every bit of drama from the words.

Lodewyk got his start in music, like so many, at church. His talent was spotted by a churchman in his native Rustenburg, who then encouraged him to listen to music.

“The first opera I listened to was The Magic Flute. I thought: ‘These people can sing without mics in big spaces.’ I didn’t even know I could study opera.”

The rest is indeed history and for this home-grown show, Lodewyk will be singing one of our collective memory’s most important and beloved histories.

The final Mandela of the trilogy is Machona, a newcomer to the professional stage. Machona (25) graduated from the University of Cape Town last year and joined the Cape Town Opera this year as one of the company’s young artists.

Now, six months later, he’s playing Mandela as a young man in a full-blown professional show. Slim and self-effacing, the bespectacled Machona I meet vanishes on stage as his deep, rich voice rings out, illustrating in a few notes why he has been cast in such an illustrious role.

“Being part of this is an opportunity to perform a story that is African. My experience of opera has been of the West,” says Machona, who is Sotho but speaks fluent Xhosa, having grown up in Cape Town.

“It’s a privilege to sing in isiXhosa. I could connect straight away to the language,” he says.

Perhaps this is one of the show’s most seductive qualities – it’s homemade in every way.

The stories it tells are about our country’s most beloved leader, the people who tell the stories display the great depth and breadth of our performing talent and, most of all, it celebrates South Africanness in all its diversity.

I haven’t seen more than an hour of the two-hour final product, and while this doesn’t pretend to be a definitive Mandela epic, The Mandela Trilogy has all the promise of being a unique piece of musical entertainment for everyone from “your uncle of 90 to your six-year-old”, as Williams asserts.

» The Mandela Trilogy is on at Durban’s Playhouse from July 29 to July 31, and at Joburg’s Teatro at Montecasino from August 13 to August 19. Book at Computicket

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