Stage: Woza, Albert – Playhouse Loft, Durban
REVIEW BY BILLY SUTER
WHAT privilege and high reward to see one of South Africa’s most important and successful plays staged in Durban again after a long absence. And what a bonus to have it performed by the original stars of the acclaimed two-hander, both of them also creators of the play.
Running without an interval for what seems like a very quick 90 minutes, and unfolding on a stage bare but for two wooden boxes and a suspended plank of timber from which hang assorted shirts, blankets and jackets, Woza, Albert has simultaneously long been one of the country’s finest examples of protest theatre and a lustrous showcase for exemplary, imaginative acting.
Conceived, long workshopped and produced by Mbongeni Ngema and Percy Mtwa, under the direction of the late Barney Simon, and first staged in the early 1980s, the production has gone on to play internationally and collect 20 awards globally.
Seeing it again almost four decades after its debut, this time under the fluid direction of Christopher John, the work remains as powerful as ever. Topical as ever too, as for all the changes in this beautiful land since Woza, Albert first stabbed with its satire, the revival underscores just how much has stayed the same.
Topics of racism, poverty and inequality – highlighted in the play via a number of everyday South African characters, all played by the hard-working Ngema and Mtwa – still, all these years later, blot South Africa’s progress, ensuring that Woza, Albert remains relevant, biting and thought-provoking.
In a nutshell, the play is a mirror for the many burdens of apartheid, reflections revealed through the suggestion of the second coming of Christ in South Africa. He is a saviour referred to as Morena, seen by many as creating for South Africans a heaven on Earth from the hell of segregation hardships that include fear and poverty – and injustices including the pass system and forced separation of migrant workers from their families.
Through a series of rapid-fire sketches we see the effect of Morena and apartheid on characters ranging from a barber and “gogo’ to convicts, street vendors, brick-makers and others. We also get soldiers, “bosses” and prison guards, all of them whites, depicted with the actors’ use of clown-like noses.
The arrival of Morena sparks much interest and concern, and builds to a riveting finale that hints at hope for better days.
Sound effects created with voice by the agile actors – varying from musical instruments and machinery, to police sirens, clattering trains, helicopter blades and even the more subtle but equally effective lighting of a cigarette and uncapping of a softdrink bottle – are used to excellent effect throughout.
This lively show, through its series of striking vignettes focusing on the absurdities of apartheid, also makes brilliant use of mime, fluid character morphings and injections of humour to flight its message.
Both actors are magical throughout, Ngema most impressing with his hungry, hunched old woman swatting flies away from a banana she salvages from a rubbish bin; his concerned man reacting to the buzzing attack on his head by a barber with an old razor; and, most memorably, his amusing, wide-eyed character in a blanket, who battles to thread a needle.
Standout moments from Mtwa include his ever-optimistic pastor in prison; his sniffing small boy who nonchalantly uses a newspaper to swat flies from meat he sells as a vendor; his camp airline passenger; and his construction-worker who is seen to act as a traitor.
Woza, Albert is one of the highlights of my theatre-going year and is highly recommended.
The production, which has an age restriction of 13, is at Durban’s Playhouse Loft until December 23. It then transfers to The Playhouse’s larger Drama theatre for a final run between December 27 and 30.
Tickets cost R150 and are available through Computicket outlets or the Playhouse box-office at (031) 369 9540 / 369 9596 (office hours).