Long musical tribute

2009-12-22 00:00


Lion of the East

The Playhouse Drama Theatre

AT a bum-numbing four hours, Mbongeni Ngema’s latest musical, Lion Of The East: Gert Sibande and the Potato Boycott, requires a lot of stamina.

And the show programme certainly doesn’t make it easy for a reviewer to give an adequate critique of his work. There were no song lists and no mention of which character was singing which song. I requested one from The Playhouse, but only ­received the song list, so am still in the dark as to which of the cast members performed which song. That is a real pity as there were several beautiful solos and I would love to be able to tell you who sang them.

What I can say as that Seipati ­Sothoana is the scene-stealing star of this show in the role of MaDlamini, who, as a young woman, was helped by Sibande to escape the oppression and abuse she received from her white employers.

She is also the focal point for the story, as it is through her eyes that the audience learns who Sibande (played by Bhoyi Ngema) was, how he came to prominence in the African National Congress and how he encouraged people to take a stand against the farmers in the then eastern Transvaal. The potato boycott which ­ensued had far-reaching effects — both in South Africa and abroad.

Ngema has a strong stage presence, essential when portraying a man of stature like Sibande. Another star in the making is Thandeka Magagula who plays Nomvula (the younger version of MaDlamini). I was particularly affected by the scene in which she mourns her lover, who has died as a result of his treatment on the potato farms. She has a wonderful voice too and it was well showcased in a number at the end of the show.

There are also some good dance routines, but the backing group — while very talented — occasionally overpowered the singers … not ideal in a musical, especially one with strong political overtones and a story which is not one every theatregoer will be familiar with.

Lion of the East is also way too long and if Ngema wants, as he says, to stage it on Broadway, he’ll have to scale it back. I doubt very much that audiences in the United States will be prepared to sit through it in its current form.

And, then there’s the question of value for money. Was it worth the R22 million that the Mpumalanga government paid Ngema to stage it, and the R2,9 million the KwaZulu-Natal government spent bringing it to Durban? I have to be honest and say, no.

Large-scale musicals cost money to stage, but this one feels bloated, overdone even. And, despite being ­passionate about the government and private sectors supporting the arts, I left the theatre thinking that taxpayers’ money could, on this occasion, have been better spent.

One more thing — I really wish The Playhouse would stop allowing ­people to enter and leave the theatre whenever they fancy it. It’s extremely disrespectful to the performers and very disruptive to those of us watching. I lost count of the number of ­people who turned up to see Lion of the East long after the show had started — some of them turning up just ­before the interval. It’s simply not ­acceptable.


• Lion of the East can be seen in The Playhouse Drama Theatre ­until January 3. Tickets are R145 from Computicket at 083 915 8000 or 031 369 9540 (office hours).

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