Isango Ensemble of Cape Town is a trailblazing company that has taken opera by the hand and led it into areas it never dreamed of. From mediaeval mystery plays to Mozart's Magic Flute and Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, Mark Dornford-May and Pauline Malefane have created a series of sublime and innovative productions that are simultaneously rooted in South African culture and global in their universality. Now they're back in London at the Young Vic with a show about a Somali refugee. Look away now, Daily Mail.
Based on a book by South African author Jonny Steinberg, this is the life of Asad -- child refugee, orphan, hustler, migrant and shopkeeper -- and his long odyssey across Africa from Somalia to South Africa in search of a life and a place of safety. It's told with extraordinary empathy, theatrical imagination, humour and skill, without ever lapsing into bathos or sentimentality. Asad is played by several actors, including two small boys. After seeing his mother killed in a fight between Somali clans, he is tossed from one humiliation to the next, losing everyone who is dear to him. After Ethiopia and Kenya and a long journey south, he finally reaches South Africa, surviving largely because of the clan system. Resented as a profiteer by black South Africans, his township shop selling break, milk, soap and other essentials gets trashed and destroyed until once again he is left with nothing.
There's nothing preachy about the way the story is told; there have been plenty of shows about migrants recently, prompted by the arrival of war refugees in western Europe, but Asad's tale reminds us that the distinction between refugees and migrants seeking a better life is often an artificial one. Asad works and grafts, but his reward is continuing violence and insecurity.
Isango's style is to weave together some stunning operatic moments, notably those involving Pauline Malefane, with extraordinary vocal and dance ensemble movements that allow all members of the company to shine. The feeling at the end is that the show only scratches the surface of their multiple talents. Does the UK have a company of any kind that can display such stunning versatility? I suspect not.