Venus and Adonis, performed by Isango Ensemble, directed by Mark Dornford-May


The opening performance which will kick off the Globe Theatre’s pre-Olympic  Shakespeare festival on April 21 is taking shape just a stone’s throw from South Africa’s parliament and President Zuma’s Cape Town office.

The Globe to Globe Festival will include all Shakespeare’s plays from 37 plays in 37 languages, but the opening night is not a play at all. South Africa’s contribution is a home-made adaptation of  Venus and Adonis, the epic poem which Shakespeare penned in his younger years before discovering the stage was financially and artistically more rewarding.

The innovative Mark Dornford-May and the Isango Ensemble company, whose African language productions of uCarmen, Magic Flute and A Christ Carol (Ikristmas 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 which is very different to how Shakespeare has ever been treated before.

Converting a poem into a play is difficult enough, so why make it even tougher by turning it into a musical, I ask Dornfort-May between in a pause in his rehearsals? “Music is an integral of all the culture of South Africa,” he says, “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 which 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 sur-titles, but the Globe’s audience will get the message from an expressive cast which 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 (when she is not actually performing on stage she takes a turn on the marimbas, typical of this highly versatile and inventive company). She is backed up by a seasoned cast, many of whom have taken part in Isango’s sold-out  tours of cities ranging from New York to Melbourne and won a bagful of awards along the way. A core of them 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. “The theatre very kindly offered us the use of their sound systems and effect,” says Dornford-May, “but we have no interest in recorded music, or in amplified sound - all our music will be unamplified and in that particularly space, it’s going to be fantastic.” 

 The Isango ensemble, he reckons, will be less daunted by the Globe’s open stage and audience than many of the more timid companies taking part in the Festival. “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.”

Informal and impromptu as it is, the music still has to be written, and this is the task of Mandisi Dyantyis, who has been the third person in the company for the past six years. He was the music director behind The Magic Flute, one of Isango’s most successful productions which enjoyed a highly successful run at the Young Vic (its artistic director, David Lan, sits on Isango’s council, as do Stephen Daldry and Sean Mathias) before moving to the West End where it won an Olivier award for Best Musical Revival. 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.

“We try to limit our props and musical instruments to the kind of things you can find in a township,” says Mandisi, “and Mark often says if you can’t find it there, you can’t use it.”

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

Many of the other productions in the Globe to Globe festival will be existing productions transferred from the equivalent of a National Theatre, complete with government subsidy. South Africa doesn’t have a National Theatre, and the Isango Ensemble gets no subsidy – opera and Western-influenced stage or music are not high on President Zuma’s priority list of arts projects. “We’d like to create a national theatre in Cape Town,” says Dornford-May who was involved in revival the old Wilton Theatre in London’s Docklands and the Athol Fugard in Cape Town. “But maybe that’s a next stage.” The film of uCarmen received neither support nor attention until it won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film festival, after which everyone wanted to claim it.

He therefore has to rely on overseas ticket sales and promotions. The Young Vic helped finance the Flute and the Globe is a co-producer (paying 50 per cent of the costs) of Venus.

Shakespeare’s great poem was said to have been inspired by Titian’s famous painting of Venus and Adonis in the Prado and was probably his first published work. Its 1,194 lines have been trimmed of the descriptive lines which are supplied by the action on-stage, but still contain Adonis’s exultant (in this case despairing) cry of “Tomorrow I hunt the boar.” Instead the boar hunts him, and that’s the sad end of our handsome champion, movingly mourned by the Isango ensemble.

And after Venus? “We’d like to have a stab at a Verdi text, maybe a Macbeth or an Othello,” says Dornford-May.  “Mixing text of our own with that would be very interesting.”