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The Mother of All Performances

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DOUBLE TROUBLE: Piano man Bernett Mulungo and actors Jerry Mntonga and Mpho Osei-Tutu in The Mother of All Eating.

When you’re staging a classic from the past like Zakes Mda’s The Mother of All Eating, which is running at The Market from tomorrow, there are many questions that swirl about.

“It’s evolved from where we started,” says director Makhaola Siyanda Ndebele.

Even though it was first presented in Lesotho (where the story is set) in 1992, he felt that as it stood, they didn’t want to tamper with the script. It deals with issues South Africans still experience every day, such as betrayal by those in power and the horrific neglect of disadvantaged communities.

What he did want to play with was the concept of a one-man satire. Telling the story and exploring the culture of corruption, known as “eating”, Ndebele felt he would like to tell the story with two actors in the role of the central (and only) character called The Man. He is the principal secretary to a government minister and is described as corrupt to the core. He has enriched himself and is the main figure implicated in a recent government tender gone wrong. It comes back to haunt him, which results in his extravagant lifestyle coming to an abrupt end.

“I was looking at different ways of telling the story,” says the director, and once he started casting he found complementary actors rather than two who might be imitating one another. That’s when the idea started to morph into the character growing different heads, in a sense. It might be one man, but the excess is multiplying – it has tentacles.

It is precisely that which Mda wanted to expose: the greed, the destructive mindsets and the tragic effects that accompany corruption.

And the duo on stage, Jerry Mntonga and Mpho Osei-Tutu, with pianist Bernett Mulungo, are having fun with their idea. “I’ve never had such a long time just to play around,” says Osei-Tutu.

As he and Mntonga had to find one another’s rhythms, they needed the time. It’s not simply that they are playing one man, it’s about checking into one another’s head space.

Also adding to the idea of exaggeration are the mirrors used as part of the set. Not only will The Man constantly look and play with his own image, the audience will also see themselves reflected while watching this exposition of greed.

Still piling on the layers, there’s also the piano man Mulungo, who studied theatre composition and knows that what he is trying to do here might be harking back to something familiar, but is new in a theatrical sense.

“It is almost like another voice,” he says. But he also supplies all the sounds like the telephone ringing, and catches the atmosphere as tempers rise or when there’s someone at the door.

It reminds you a bit of the silent movie treatment with the pianist sitting in front of the screen while interpreting the action and the words with music.

He uses classical and jazz music to create the effects and is excited about what he hopes to achieve.

“It is a new voice,” concedes Mulungo. But that also allows for improvisation in the whole scenario as he writes his own story and further establishes the power of music in the South African storytelling context.

“It’s all about image,” says Ndebele, and that’s what he’s hoping to drive home. How everything looks, what car you drive, the watch you wear, where you live and the impact of all this jewellery on others.

“We are a society where bling matters,” he says.

He’s assisted by Gaosi Raditholo, and she’s the one who’s checking the concept of the characters and that they work.

“It’s one person, but he’s multi-dimensional,” she explains.

It’s not that we’re seeing two different sides, rather you’re given an exaggerated version of The Man who is almost drowning in his excesses.”

The Mother of All Eating was first performed at the Sechaba Hall of the Victoria Hotel in Maseru, Lesotho, in 1992. It enjoyed great popularity there, and subsequently toured Europe. In 2010, the play was produced for a new generation at the Drama for Life South African Theatre Season, with the theme Honouring the Archive: Theatre, Memory and Social Justice. It then travelled to the Maitisong Theatre Festival in Botswana and to Lesotho, where it was again warmly received. In 2012, it was staged at the Arts Alive International Festival in Joburg.

These are young voices reinterpreting an established work and that’s what makes it exciting. They’re looking at the work from a fresh vantage point and from a place that views the world in a different way than when it was written. And in a time of excessive greed – worldwide – there are few who aren’t influenced and have something to say about how it affects their lives.

Once again, The Market has got the timing right.

• The Mother of All Eating opens tomorrow and runs until June 1 in the Barney Simon Theatre at Joburg’s Market.


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