Printable CopyA MAN OF GOOD HOPE
The Adelaide Festival
Royalty Theatre
Until 11 Mar 2019

Review by Anthony Vawser

Overheard upon exiting “A Man of Good Hope”:
“It wasn’t a feel-good story.” “No, but it was an epic.”

Sometimes your fellow audience members are worth quoting (well, paraphrasing, at least), if they happen to display a knack for boiling down the essence of a show just as well as any reviewer could. Fortunately, there is plenty more that this reviewer can choose to comment on, since “A Man of Good Hope” puts a great deal of detail, vigour, and intelligence into its drawn-from-life South African saga.

Author Jonny Steinberg penned a book about the journey of this show’s protagonist, Asad Abdullahi, and it was Steinberg’s published account that formed the basis of director Mark Dornford-May’s stage version. Abdullahi is portrayed by multiple male members of the ensemble, starting as a child (both Siphosethu Hintsho and Phielo Asakhe Makitle are credited and will presumably alternate; the opening night portrayal was both delightful and impressive) – but Asad is also a boy born into a world where ‘growing up’ is a ruthlessly fast and painful process, leaving traumatic memories in its wake but with little time allowed for recovery or reflection.

Our young hero initially finds purpose and maturity in helping others survive the harsh environment around them; to see how Asad evolves as a person is to witness the changes that South Africa, its neighbours, and their populations go through, from the 1960s through to the present day. The hopeful-yet-haunting final words in “A Man of Good Hope” remind us all that for many others like Asad, their stories are yet to be heard, and are just as deserving of being told.

There is a great deal for theatregoers to enjoy and admire in this production, as well as a lot it can teach us about the political history of a region that has birthed so many striking strands of influential culture in the midst of its various conflicts. Sometimes the fluidity and fast pace of the show, while generally an asset, can make the shifts in time and changes in character something of a challenge to keep up with. The life of Asad is one worthy of telling, but it would appear that the process of condensing it for the stage has meant that one may need to read Steinberg’s book to get the complete picture.

Nonetheless, what is presented in “A Man of Good Hope” makes for a good show, not least because of the decidedly distinctive approach taken by the Isango Ensemble in presenting it. Lungelo Ngamlana has choreographed an electric display of dancing, while the music (directed by Mandisi Dyantyis & Pauline Malefane) is an exuberant, eclectic mixture of tunes played principally on marimba, built on sophisticated-yet-primal rhythms, and alternated with the occasional breathtaking unaccompanied choral arrangement or operatic interlude.

It all adds up to the kind of experience that should solidly satisfy Festival fans.