Amajuba: Like Doves We Rise, Barbican, London

The shadow of apartheid
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The Independent Culture

"Memories", SAYS one of the actors in the prologue to Amajuba, "gather like dust: sometimes you feel you will never be clean." Yael Farber's production, which comes from South Africa via the Oxford Playhouse, makes great play with that image. The only props are zinc bathtubs and pottery basins, and at the end of the evening the whole stage is covered with builder's sand, leaving an orange pall of dust hanging in the air, before the cast all lave themselves in a tub of water.

"Memories", SAYS one of the actors in the prologue to Amajuba, "gather like dust: sometimes you feel you will never be clean." Yael Farber's production, which comes from South Africa via the Oxford Playhouse, makes great play with that image. The only props are zinc bathtubs and pottery basins, and at the end of the evening the whole stage is covered with builder's sand, leaving an orange pall of dust hanging in the air, before the cast all lave themselves in a tub of water.

But the real cleansing, it is made clear, comes from reliving memories, telling stories. One by one, the five actors - three men and two women - offer their own tales of growing up under apartheid: a famished, lonely childhood in rural Transkei; the misery of being a "coloured" boy in a black neighbourhood in Mafeking; watching your family fall apart after compulsory relocation; living under the shadow of gang violence in Soweto, where people are knifed to death over a can of beer; and the exhilaration and terror of life as a teenage activist, seeing friends lynched and taking part in the "necklacing" of an informer.

The programme credits the script to Farber and the entire cast, and offers the assurance that it is "based on the lives of the cast". How closely it is based on their lives is hard to know. The truth, I would rather think, is that these unbearable stories are exaggerated.

The most distressing moments, in fact, are not those that involve outright brutality. Indeed, it is when the production stoops to action that it is at its least convincing: Jabulile Tshabalala's recollection of a beating at the hands of a notorious neighbourhood gang in Soweto (the consequence of telling a gang leader that he was "not her type") ought to be climactic, but it falls between two stools, neither believable as a literal re-enactment, nor finding a symbolic equivalent for the violence.

Far more moving are the moments when the actors face front and tell their stories straight, and we get an irresistible sense of how innocence was stunted and distorted by apartheid: in France Conradie's memory of rejection by his schoolmates for speaking the wrong language and being the wrong shade of black; and in Bongeka Mpongwana's account of being abandoned by her family at the age of eight, fighting off nightmares in a dark, empty house, always hungry. It is hard to reconcile this image of feral loneliness with the dynamic young woman in front of us, and I wished that she had filled in some of the gaps.

The force of the narratives makes some of the theatrical conceits, and the pervasive washing metaphor, seem ponderous and unnecessary, and the overriding flaw here is an unwillingness to trust the material. But the cracks are papered over by the music - you expect marvellous singing in South African drama, but the harmonies here are still startling and glorious; and overall, this is a gripping and moving experience.



To Saturday (0845 120 7518), then touring

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