657 Actors Phillip Tipa Tindisa and Philip Dikotla play brothers in law John and Niara in the 'Fishers of Hope' showcasing at Graeme College Theatre during the Grahamstown Arts Festival. This year is the 40th anniversary of the festival. 040714. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Fishers of Hope (Taweret)

Written and Directed by Lara Foot

Cast: Mncedisi Shabangu, Lesedi Job, Phillip TipoTindisa, Phillip Dikotla, Shaun Oelf and Nceba Gongxeka

Venue: Artscape Theatre Flipside

UNTIL: August 8

Rating: ****

THIS luminous new play from Lara Foot has a clarity of script and universality of theme that make it accessible – and rewarding – to a broad spectrum of audiences.

Wrought from a subtle blend of socio-political comment, philosophy and poetic metaphor, Fishers of Hope probes such issues as ecological degradation and the erosion of indigenous societies in the wake of foreign interference, as well as sexism, poverty, and the nature and role of hope in human survival.

On one level, this is a straight-forward family drama unfolding in an isolated village on the shores of a Kenyan lake, where simple fisher-folk eke out a living as best they can from stock depleted by the introduction of alien fish.

Beyond that storyline one becomes aware of other forces shaping the protagonists’ destiny – some explicable in socio-political terms, others more elusive, like the hippopotamus (Taweret) whose symbolic significance as a dangerous deity becomes apparent as the plot progresses: a fisherman’s gangrenous leg, infected by the animal’s bite, is a metaphor for the plight of the dying village by the lake.

Two cultures, that of the village and that of modern African society, more dependent on tourism than fishing, collide in the course of the action.The latter is embodied in Njawu, the garrulous extrovert who plies his trade as an informal tour guide and through whose eyes we view the crisis in the lives of John, Ruth and their nephew, Peter. Njawu also serves as a narrator.

What makes this work so original is the subordination of characters to their context: while the relationships between members of John’s family are wholly convincing and the personae well-rounded, it is the broader significance of their lives, struggles and decisions which ultimately defines Fishers of Hope.

Sterling performances from Mncedisi Shabangu (Njawu), Lesedi Job (Ruth), Phillip Tipo Tindisa (John) and Phillip Dikotla (Niara, Ruth’s brother), add tellingly to the play’s merits, as does the athletic dancing of Shaun Oelf in the role of the taciturn Peter, who chooses to express himself non-verbally.

A character not listed in the dramatis personae is the lake itself, exquisitely staged by Patrick Curtis. Its beauty and power are evoked through an artful blend of reality and illusion in a set that is both functional and poetic. To complete the sense of place there is atmospheric music played live on traditional African instruments by Nceba Gongxeka.

Foot’s latest contribution to South African theatre is brilliantly staged and well served all round.