Saturday, May 26, 2012

'Aesop's Fables' performed by the Isango Ensemble, Hackney Empire 26th May 2012

Having seen 'Aesop's Fables' I've managed to 'complete the set' of the Isango Ensemble's residence at the Hackney Empire.  It's nice to be able to compare them, and I've now got a lot of respect of their versatility.  After 'La boheme' and 'the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' this was a nice change of pace.  Both of the other productions seem to have been aimed at seasoned theatre-goers, 'Aesop's Fables' was more for children, and was cheery and upbeat.

I saw it on a hot and sunny Saturday afternoon. I have to admit that the prospect of spending a few hours of a beautiful day in a theatre was ever-so-slightly off putting.  On the way there I saw friends lounging around on the grass sipping ice cold, perspiring beers, and was sorely tempted to join them.  If this wasn't the only production I hadn't seen out of a set of three, I may have been won over by the sunshine.  So I entered the cool and dark theatre maybe slightly out of a sense of duty rather than unbridled enthusiasm.

Missing the sunshine was the least of my worries - this was in every sense of the word a sunny and happy production.  There was an atmosphere of playfulness in the performance that was absent from the seriousness of 'La boheme' and 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists'.  The mood throughout was enhanced by the fact that there were lots of children in the audience.  I don't really go to that many plays aimed at children, and their smiles and laughs were a big change from the self conscious clipped laughs and polite applause of the adult audience at, say La boheme.

This was a far more flamboyant show than the previous Isango productions.  The characters in those were poor, desperate and portrayed semi-realistically while the Aesop's Fables animals are essentially symbols of various impulses and positive and negative human traits.  Their symbolic representation allows for a lot of flexibility in the costuming.  Some highlights were the Rastafarian goat, the lycra-clad fitness fanatic hare and the glam-rock, futurepunk cockerel.  

My two favourites, which stood out for sheer physicality were the wolf and the tortoise.  The tortoise was imagined as a kind of chilled out hippy, with a painted shell, round sunglasses and waistcoat.  The bright yellow colours and body language seemed to perfectly encapsulate the philosophy of doing things at your own pace that the tortoise represents.  Characters would frequently come down and walk amongst the audience during the action, so I got to see the tortoises costume close-up a few times.  It was covered in intricate graffiti and 60s designs, a lovely piece of costuming.  The tortoise was played by Noluthando Bogwana, who I also singled out in Philanthropists as being expertly expressive with her body language.  Her slow, shuffling tortoise walk is frequently played for laughs to great effect, particularly when she wins the race against the hare.  

The other favourite was the wolf.  The wolf was realised as a big, fat boxer.  Everything about the costume screamed false bravado.  The wolf is one of the 'bad guys' (such as they are) in this.  The character manages to be simultaneously scary and a figure of fun.  It's a nice tightrope to walk down, and the sheer physicality of the actor really helps.  Zamile Gantana is quite the imposing stage presence.  The guy is enormous, and the way his huge belly pokes out from under his overly tight athletic gear accentuates the theme of greed that his character represents, while also making his movements humorously clumsy. 

I also have to mention the 'lion'.  It makes a very brief appearance, but in its brief moment on stage is utterly awe-inspiring.  It comes at the end of a rhythmic dance number, and violently thrashes its straw mane violently around.  It then runs down the central aisle of the theatre.  I was sitting on this aisle, and there was a fantastic rush of wind and swoosh of straw as it flew past me.  It was a sudden, shocking tactile sensation that I wasn't expecting in the slightest. 

Every Isango Ensemble production has had extremely strong African themes running through it.  The instrumentation here was provided by xylophones and percussion was from upturned steel bins.  Part of the performance was in an African language, and I'm ashamed to say that I don't know what it was (possibly Zulu?). Even though I'm ignorant as to what was being said, the shift in language did a great deal for the production.   While the origins of Aesop's Fables is Greek, the African cultural influences made it feel more like these were extensions of the Anansi tales.  I always feel a little culturally illiterate when I'm confronted with influences outside of my cultural sphere, but if nothing else, it gives me the impetus to expand my horizons.

All three Isango productions have focussed on the downtrodden and dispossessed in society.  La boheme looked at starving artists, Philanthropists was about exploited workers and Aesop's Fables is no different. The overall plot is about a slave trying to free himself from his master.  This production may be targeted towards children, but explaining why freedom is important and the knowledge one must gain in order to be truly free is something adults and children alike can learn.  I really liked the themes of forgiveness too - when Aesop, the slave is finally free, he stops to emancipate his master who has been put in literal chains by his greed and hubris.  The dissolving of the boundaries between protagonist and antagonist reminded me of a Studio Ghibli film.  I think Disneyesque representations of black and white morality are a slightly dangerous lesson to drum into children, so teaching them that even the worst people can be redeemed and learn their lesson is a noble thing.

I've really enjoyed all of these productions, and I hope I can see them again at some point.   I've watched this company perform for maybe six hours in total over the last three weeks, and I've gained a great deal of respect for their talent, versatility and charisma.  They shook the audiences hands at the end of the performance, and I get a real sense of their warmth and enthusiasm for their art. My hat goes off to them.

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