Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists performed by the Isango Ensemble, Hackney Empire

Back to the Hackney Empire for more from the Isango Emsemble.  Despite not really being able to understand what the plot of La boheme was I had a pretty good time.  The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a bit more up my street though, and I was familiar with the book.  Nonetheless, this time I took no chances, and read through the programme before it started.  This also allowed me to find out just what was going on in La boheme.  In retrospect, I should have bought a programme last week.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is a musical based on the 1914 book by Robert Tressell.  The book is a classic of socialist literature, with the action set in the South of England and showing how the working class of the town are exploited by their employers.   This musical version is set in South Africa during apartheid.  The central characters are employed as painters and as the plot develops, we witness the effects of capitalist theory on the working class.  This version, with an entirely South African cast also looks at the effects of colonialism and racism.  Setting the events in South Africa is not an arbitrary decision, Robert Tressell was an Irishman who at one point lived and worked in Cape Town and Johannesburg.  It was here that he became involved with trade unions, and with the socialist philosophies that fill his book.  

The staging here is quite similar to that of La boheme, with the gently forward sloping stage, and with minimal set.  The set is bathed in earth tones, complementing the characters shabby clothes.  When there is bright colour on stage it tends to stand out.  In the first act giant green letters are slowly painted blue over the course of the act, and they seem to glow bright in the light.  At the start of the second act, the male characters don their ' minstrel stage wear', red and white polka-dotted evening coats and white trilbys.  The bright costumes seem to make their everyday wear seem even more dowdy.

In La boheme, the instrumentation was entirely African, in this production there is no orchestra, and very little instrumentation.  The voices of the performers, nearly always singing in harmony more than fill the room.  The fact that most of the songs only work when all of the performers are acting as one also works thematically.  There are very few parts in the room where the workers sing alone.  Their 'bosses' however are placed in isolated areas of the stage and sing alone.  As before, the singing was exemplary.  Admittedly, I don't really have the critical framework to decide whether someone is singing brilliantly or just extremely competently, but each performer injected the personality of their character into the songs.  

Now that I have a programme,  I can pick out individuals to praise.  In both Isango productions I've seen, Mhlekazi Mosiea has been the standout performer.  He's played the leads in both, and manages to show deep inner anger coupled with an innocent fragility.  As the callous and money-grubbing superintendant, Noluthando Bogwana is also a stand out.  She stalks around the stage in a floor length coat, striking strange angular poses and looking somewhat terrifying with her widened eyes.  There is a particular fun scene where, pretending to have a close relationship with the workers she attempts to conduct them in a choir.   Almost every weird pose she finds is hilarious.  As she contorts the sound of the choir shifts and warps to match her motions, it's something I've never seen before on stage, and must be pretty damn complicated to rehearse.

One scene in particular stands out above the rest.  It's when our hero, Nkosi Songo explains just how the workers are being bamboozled and exploited by capitalism.  He playacts the role of a factory owner, using slices of bread as the raw materials of the land.  He puts his friends in the position of working for him, making the bread into sandwiches and paying them for their work.  Then when they've finished making sandwiches, he asks what they're going to eat.  They pay back their wages, and get a single sandwich.  They are left with nothing, and the boss's wealth increases at their expense.  The cycle is infinite and the workers are essentially trapped at a near-poverty level.  It's a neat demonstration of Marx's theory of surplus value.  I've tried to read Capital, and despite my best efforts found it somewhat impenetrable, so the fact that this staged version is able to quickly, efficiently and convincingly illustrate one of the pillars of his economic theory is a credit to both Tressell and the production.

I enjoyed this much more than La boheme.  The songs, production and the politics were much more to my tastes than the opera I saw last week.  I'd like to see the third of their shows, Aesop's Fables before they finish just to complete the set.  In popular culture it's uncommon to see something that so unashamedly advocates socialist values, so I consider this a rare treat.  

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

0 Responses to “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists performed by the Isango Ensemble, Hackney Empire”

Post a Comment

© All articles copyright LONDON CITY NIGHTS.
Designed by SpicyTricks, modified by LondonCityNights