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Theatre Essentials: Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope

Our quick introduction to the South African theatre company’s story of an African migrant’s indomitable hope, told through music, theatre and dance.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

5 October 2016 at 1.20pm | Comment on this article

Isango Ensemble storms the world stage

A Man of Good Hope is the latest production by Cape Town-based theatre company Isango Ensemble. Founded in 2000, the company has stormed the world stage with award-winning productions that bring together music, dance and theatre, all performed by a true ensemble cast. The company is perhaps best known for its adaptations of classic operas: U-Carmen Ekhayelitsha, La bohème Abanxaxhi and The Magic Flute Impempe Yomlingo all retell these stories in a contemporary township setting, reimagining the music through a South African lens. Within this feast of music and dance there always runs a thread of fervent political comment – and A Man of Good Hope is no different.

The true story behind A Man of Good Hope

Isango Ensemble’s A Man of Good Hope is inspired by the 2015 non-fiction book of the same name by South African writer and scholar Jonny Steinberg. In it he tells the true life story of Asad Abdullahi, who by the time he met Steinberg in Blikkiesdorp, Cape Town, had travelled far from his Somalian hometown. Fleeing Mogadishu aged eight after seeing his mother murdered by militiamen, Abdullahi’s odyssey took him through most of the horn of Africa. Living off his wits and running from regime change, he eventually ends up working as a hustler in Blikkiesdorp, South Africa’s ‘Tin Can Town’. Steinberg finds in Abdullahi’s story not only the depressingly familiar tale of forced migration through violence, but a remarkable strength of hope and ambition in the face of astonishing odds.

A riot of song and dance

Song and dance are intrinsic elements in Isango Ensemble’s theatrical style, springing naturally from the stories and becoming exuberant, natural intensifiers of the narrative. For A Man of Good Hope, music director Mandisi Dyantyis and movement director Lungelo Ngamlana draw on the cultural styles of Ethiopia, Tanzania, Zambia and finally South Africa to colour and contextualize Abdullahi’s journey, using music and dance to illustrate not only the environments he moves through but the people he meets. The all-singing, all-dancing cast are joined on stage by seven marimbas, djembe drums and further percussion made from drinks bottles and dustbins to create this musical journey.

The spirit of the townships

Isango Ensemble’s performers mostly grew up in Cape Town townships, and come to Isango from all levels of professional development – giving the company a unique energy and sense of community. As the company’s Artistic Director and co-founder Mark Dornford-May explains, ‘the great strength of Isango is that it is an ensemble company – maybe one of two or three ensemble companies left in the world’, with each person involved a crucial element in bringing their stories to life. Isango is dedicated to finding new routes for the next generations of South African performers and raising awareness of the work that needs to be done to improve access: the two child performers in A Man of Good Hope are, says Isango, drawn from schools where ‘the talent is phenomenal, the opportunities few’.

Busisiwe Ngejane and members of the company in A Man Of Good Hope at Baxter Theatre © Trevor Samson

London favourites

London has offered a welcoming home to Isango Ensemble since its first international tour in 2001. The company has performed at numerous theatres around the capital but has formed a particularly close relationship with the Young Vic, which co-produced The Magic Flute Impempe Yomlingo (winner of the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival) and A Christmas Carol Ikrismas Kherol. The partnership continues with A Man of Good Hope – but the production is a first for The Royal Opera, which co-produces as part of its rich programme of contemporary work created in partnership with the world’s leading music, dance and theatre organizations. Further collaborations this Season include the revival of ZooNation’s The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, at the Roundhouse.

A Man of Good Hope runs 6 October–12 November 2016. Tickets are still available.

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