The New Victory Theatre on West 42nd Street in New York is a long-standing cultural institution dedicated to presenting a global arts program for children from to years old, to teens. Last week I took my two children to see South Africa’s Isango Ensemble’s production of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The New Victory Theatre presents Shakespeare more or less annually, from companies home and abroad: last year Fiasco’s theatre presented Measure for Measure on 42nd Street, and in 2013 The Acting Company in association with The Gutherie Theatre presented As You Like It. Shakespeare notwithstanding, the New Victory Theatre has illustrated a deep and sustained commitment to age-appropriate multi-cultural drama that I darsay is equal, in ambition, if not stature, to that of the Globe.
Isango ensemble is a South African operatic troupe, whose mission is to “re-imagine classics from the Western theatre canon, finding new context for the stories within a South African or township setting, thereby creating inventive work relevant to the heritage of the nation.” This is Isango’s second visit to the New Victory Space, having presented their well-received Magic Flute as part of the 2014-5 season. The production was abridged, cut into two one hour halves, and performed on a bare stage. While, textually, the piece was faithful to Britten’s adaptation, it was set in an energetic and contemporary production, infused with elements of African culture, in both the visual structure of the piece and the use of traditional South African instruments, as well as others fashioned by hand from found objects such as glass bottles and metal oil barrels,. The Athenian scenes were multi-lingual, the verse weaving in and out of English, Twsana, Zulu, and Xhosa, with the forest scenes sung according to Britten’s music.
Here, I must freely confess to being slightly out of my depth when it comes to assessing Britten’s opera: what I can say is that Mark Dornford-May’s extraordinary and accomplished production enthralled me, and (more importantly) its target audience, my two daughters. In particular, my youngest child, whose visit to the New Victory constituted her first exposure to Shakespeare, admitted that even though she didn’t understand everything, she found the show both enjoyable and comprehensible–in spite of the variety of languages, and potentially the generic barrier that might occur in the shift towards a less visually vivid form. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a perfect introduction to Shakespeare for younger children, and Isango’s inclusion of traditional African mysticism in the representation of the fairies allowed the magic of the play to shine through in a way that was vibrant, African, and deeply Shakespearean.
At the heart of Isango’s production were the humans. The lovers, in particular, Busiswe Ngejane’s Helena, and Zolina Ngejane’s Hermia, were more than a match for the men who loved (and loathed) them, and Zamile Gantana’s Bottom, whose deep commitment to his own sense of artistry gave a warmth to the mechanicals’ Pyramus and Thisbe, which was accentuated by Britten’s decision to omit the aristocratic comedy of the play. Although the staging was tailored to suit its younger audience (with, for example, a warmly maternal Titania played by Pauline Malefane and the love-in-idleness flower’s magic administered via a bubble wand), there were surprisingly powerful moments of darkness that occasionally arose. When Noluthando Boqwana’s otherwise irrepressible Puck wept with fear and pain at Oberon’s brutal response to her failure to enchant the correct lovers was a shocking assertion of patriarchal authority that looked back towards Egeus’ attempt to enforce his daughter’s hand.
Isango’s run at the New Victory, sadly, was brief. But this invigorating and magical production should be remembered as part of the New Victory’s valuable and exciting repertoire, and the company should be on the radar of anyone interested in innovative Shakespearean performance.