The Mysteries is the new show from the Cape Town based Isango Portobello Theatre Company, the people who brought us an award-winning Magic Flute last year.
Now they've turned their attention to the bible stories. For those of you unfamiliar with the term "Mystery Plays", they're basically VHS to Shakespeare et al's DVD. Before the Reformation in the 16th century, theatre took place in the street, and told stories of God, Adam and Eve, angels and demons, Abraham, Noah, and so on.
The Isango Portobello Theatre Company offers a wonderful mix of powerful chanting, energetic dance, beautiful singing, and brilliant inventive staging.
On a daring, empty, sloping stage, simple props give a nod to the origins of this type of theatre: a bale of hay represents Bethlehem; a white cloth, the last supper. And a bare ladder serves as God's throne (which favourite angel, Lucifer can't help but touch, with fiery consequences), Noah's hastily built Ark, and a weighty cross for Jesus to carry before his own crucifixion.
Much of the singing is unaccompanied; when instruments are used in The Mysteries, they're likely to be pieces of tubing, car tyres and sheets of metal.
But this rough-sounding description totally belies Isango Portobello's incredibly slick, polished performance. There's something quite moving about the huge, doomed paper Adam and Eve puppets, pre-apple incident, in all their simplicity.
The costumes also reference the early Mystery plays. The 30-strong cast are mostly dressed in everyday Cape Town overalls, aprons and shirts. Any more theatrical costumes are used to good effect: Noah's Victorian style swim-suit hangs baggily around his huge belly; boys in blue boilersuits with "Angel" embossed on the back, part boy-band, part mechanic, don white safety helmets with roughly cut out angels on top; both King David and Simphiwe Mayeki’s Herod appear as African warlords.
Perhaps the most striking use of costume is the post-interval transformation of Pauline Malefane’s God into Jesus. This wonderful actress dominates the first half as a magisterial God; she's then stripped of her bracelets and colourful coat, becoming a more down-to-earth fisherman. In a stirring costume change, even her crown-like turban is unravelled and remodelled as a fishing net.
The Mysteries is performed in a mixture of languages: English, Xhosa, Tswana, Afrikaans, Zulu and Latin. While this serves to increase the exotic, other-worldly nature of what's unfolding before you, from time to time it can confuse things. We wished we'd understood more of the debate between JC and Herod; sadly beyond Herod's demands about kingship and truth, Jesus' answers were lost in translation.
If we have a quibble with this inventive show, it's that the second half fails to match the brilliance of the first. Like many Sunday school sessions, you'll probably remember and enjoy the colourful, fun Old Testament stuff (particularly Noah and co breaking out into "You Are My Sunshine" post-flood) more than the gloomier second half, ploughing inexorably towards betrayal, sacrifice and death.
The Mysteries plays at the Garrick Theatre until 3 October. Tickets cost £25-£40. Call 0844 579 1974 or click here to buy tickets. Lead image shows Pauline Malefane (Deus) with the Angels; by Ruphin Coudyzer FPPSA.