It’s Afro Vibes Festival down at Stratford Circus this month and when I got there I was welcomed by the sound of The Soil, with talented support from a youth choir. It was an energetic start, and I joined in with gusto, if not grace. Rhetorical takes a retrospective look at the political career of Thabo Mbeki, a key player in the ANC and Mandela’s successor. The piece is a series of separate pictures, based around three of his speeches and sewn together in a broad tapestry illustrating some of the many perspectives of the South African people. The poor still desperately poor, still waiting for the change they have been promised while the rising middle class cling to their newfound freedom. We are brought into family life and political arenas and on to the streets and slums, to witness the state of a society still recovering from the many wounds of apartheid as well as some more recently inflicted.
The effects of colonialism are alluded to from the outset as a drunken South African stumbles on to a stage littered with books by the greats of Western literature, from Tolstoy to Plath. Our first speaker, Presley Chweneyagae criticises the pretentious new intelligentsia, with their “fake English accents”. He retches drunkenly over the representations of Western (and foreign) culture. In the next scene Atandwa Kani as Mbeki, picks up the books in awe, his reaction contrasting the reactions of the average South African to Western influence with that of the rarefied elite.
A vibrant mixture of styles and themes holds the show together. There is a balance between a realm that is real, and one that is deeply abstract and fantastical. Mime and dance, and a mass of noises and beats from the actors keep the audience on their toes. Comedy and tragedy pull against each other throughout. One moment that caught me out was the depiction of rape through dance to the tune of Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise which I jovially bobbed my head to until I realised what was going on. This echoed Stanley Kubrick’s decision to juxtapose his own rape scene with Singing in the rain.
Some characters were more impressive than others, of course, but each one took on a variety of roles and played them excellently. Cheweneyagae was a man from the slums and one from the suburbs and Tshireletse Nkoane a loving wife and a thug in training. The heaviness of the topic and the bum-numbing seats of Stratford Circus contributed to make the show slightly too long but, even so, it was mind-expanding, educational and beautiful to watch. 4/5
Review written by Harry Davies.
Rhetorical was shown at Stratford Circus from Wednesday 15th- Saturday 18th October. For more information on future productions at Stratford Circus, visit here…
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