Poetry in motion as South Africans tackle Shakespeare

A Cape Town theatre company offers an exciting take on the Bard

The opening performance that will kick off the Globe Theatre's pre-Olympic Shakespeare festival on Saturday is taking shape just a stone's throw from South Africa's parliament and President Zuma's Cape Town office. South Africa's contribution is a home-made adaptation of Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare's epic poem.

The innovative Mark Dornford-May and the Isango Ensemble company, whose African-language productions of Carmen, The Magic Flute and A Christ Carol (Ikrismas Kherol), enjoyed considerable success in London and on the international circuit, have turned the words of the Bard into their own distinctive form of lyric play.

Converting a poem into a play is difficult enough, so why make it even tougher by turning it into a musical? "Music is an integral part of all the culture of South Africa," says Dornford-May. "And it means everything to us. It's an intrinsic part of what we do, which, in a very humble way, is lyric theatre – which could mean a formal opera, traditional song, or also just the sounds, like forest sounds or the sounds of a horse, which are also music, and should be woven into the text of the work."

The Isango perfomers, all from South African townships, are long used to interpreting Dornford-May's informal and communal system of direction that essentially means letting the music, acting and even the mood develop as they go along. Only the words of Venus and Adonis, spoken in a mixture of English, Xhosa, Zulu and Tswana, are unchanged, all of them genuine Shakespeare. There will be no surtitles, but the Globe's audience will get the message from an expressive cast that employs dance, body language, and song to tell the story of the goddess's passionate but unsuccessful wooing of the beautiful earthling Adonis.

In fact, there are seven Venuses to one (very athletic) Adonis, each representing different phases of the goddess's seduction process and becoming more and more irresistible as the musical develops to the point where one has to question Adonis's sexuality. How else can mortal flesh hold out?

Venus starts and ends in the form of Pauline Malefane, Dornford-May's wife and co-founder of the ensemble a dozen years ago, who has starred in all the productions since. A core of the cast have been with the ensemble from the beginning, recruited from the most disadvantaged of South Africa's population and, under Dornford-May's paternal guidance, transformed into professional performers who can more than acquit themselves on the world stage.

Sitting through an early rehearsal gives one an inkling of the effect this group will have on the 2,000 Globe audience. No other races can chant, dance and sing like Zulus and Xhosa in full cry and the power of their stamping feet will make even the Globe shake. "We tend to work on an empty stage, with no sets, and just costumes and music, so an Elizabethan theatre setting is natural for us, and we don't have to make basic changes to the intrinsic way in which we do things," says Dornford-May.

Informal and impromptu as it is, the music still has to be written, and this is the task of Mandisi Dyantyis. He was the music director behind The Magic Flute, one of Isango's most successful productions. Mandisi, a highly accomplished jazz trumpeter, employs only the most basic of musical instruments: drums, marimbas, whistles (human), bottles and even a kudu horn, traditional precursor of the dreaded vuvuzela, which was so obtrusive at the recent World Cup.

The main instrument however remains the human voice, used in Venus by the ensemble in every mood, from elegiac keening to Whitney Houston-style ballads to full-on Zulu-warrior war-chant.

'Venus and Adonis', Shakespeare's Globe, London SE1 (020 7401 9919; shakespearesglobe.com) 21 & 22 April

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