A southern dreamscape

A local theatre company went north and brought back magical tales of urban Mozambique in a time of change

Guy Willoughby

‘A man’s story is always badly told. That is because a man is always being born.” With this teasing disclaimer, Mozambican author Mia Couto launches us into a haunting, faintly surrealistic tale of modern man, woman and beasts and likewise, Mark Fleishman and Jennie Reznek propel us into their stage adaptation of Couto’s stories, Voices Made Night.

Fleishman and Reznek’s independent company, Magnet Theatre, has spent the past 12 years honing a rich but accessible physical theatre style through a host of lively and memorable productions: Take the Floor, I Do Times 22, The Show’s Not Over Til the Fat Lady Sings, et al. In conversation at his University of Cape Town (UCT) office he’s senior lecturer in drama Fleishman expanded on how their current cross-cultural project came into being.

“I first read Mia Couto’s stories a few years ago and thought they could lend themselves to our physical-theatre style,” he muses.

“I liked the way they differed from so much African writing: instead of social realism, they are imagistic, play with magic realism and use language in a dynamic and interesting way. Last year, with a six-month sabbatical to hand and access to university funding, I was able to begin a creative research project and this was it.”

After working with a Portuguese translator in Cape Town on the English version of the stories, Fleishman visited Couto in Mozambique during July last year, “to engage with the broader creative ideas he employs”.

“Several things he stressed have helped our stage recreation: chiefly, his emphasis on character first. So we’d find the characters, and build on them, before finding the story. His stories are tied in with traditional African story-telling forms animals and humans but the context is the changing urban society in which ordinary people try to make a living in the aftermath of so much: ‘Revolution, civil war, colonialism, the ruinous floods.'”

Couto’s career represents an intriguing symbiosis an appropriate metaphor of literary and social interests. A biologist by training, Couto runs Impacto, an environmental impact-assessment agency aimed at foreign investors.

“His stories are filled with relations between nature and humans, and radiate a sense of wholeness, of one integrated system. In Couto, nature is a spiritual concept: trees and animals are also spiritual beings.

“One of the wonderful things about Couto’s work is his attachment to the people. He collects stories told by the locals and his company publishes and distributes them free of charge to schools. This is vital for kids growing up in an urban context away from the oral traditions of the countryside.”

After this climactic meeting with Couto, Fleishman and Reznek returned to cast the piece in Cape Town and begin working on the stage version. They gave try-out performances at UCT in August; then, after “valuable feedback”, the entire cast travelled in December to Maputo for an exciting exchange with Mozambican actors and one with tremendous future potential.

“Jennie and I gave workshops on physical story-telling with Mutumbela Gogo a major local theatre company and our actors came back with new insights into Mozambique. They’ve experienced the people, their food, jokes, the total environment … their understanding has deepened.”

It comes as a revelation to discover that the theatre is a fast-growing, popular form of entertainment in urban Mozambique, evolving from classic Portuguese colonial forms into a striking contemporary barometer of social change. “In Maputo, the theatre is about the basics: no exterior stuff, no aura of glamour as we have here, just the business of putting on a show and getting people in to see it.

“Mutumbela Gogo, which is one of three or four independent companies, plays in a grand old 360-seater theatre that was given to it gratis by the government after the revolution in the late 1970s. It is nearly always full!

“There’s a refreshingly unpretentious attitude: for example, the company runs a bakery in the theatre foyer to help offset costs. There is no government funding, so shows must run at a profit. Tickets cost about R20 each, plays begin at 6pm Maputo nightlife begins thereafter and run only over weekends in six-week cycles, with children’s shows on Saturday mornings.

“There’s also a practical relationship with the television service that we just don’t have here: in return for making educational inserts for TV, on, say, the danger of landmines, Mutumbela Gogo gets so many minutes of airtime to advertise their productions.”

Now Voices Made Night moves to the mainstream the vast stage of the Nico Artscape Theatre Centre, to be precise. Fleishman is apprehensive but bullish about the show’s chances in this new venue: “I think South African audiences have become more attuned to physical theatre than in the past. However, as there isn’t really mainstream theatre being regularly performed anymore, audiences only have television a thoroughly narrative, realist medium in their heads when they watch our work.”

Watching rehearsals of Voices Made Night later, we were struck by the vivid organising power of imagery in the shaping of the stage work. Recurring visual motifs build and consolidate Couto’s themes: actors literally claw and pull words out of their mouths, in a parody of spoken text and its influence; rituals of food, drink and clothing recur in broad, dynamic and shifting movement.

My appetite’s being thoroughly whetted; I’m sure that Voices Made Night will be a challenging night at the theatre.

Voices Made Night is on at the Nico Artscape Theatre Centre, Cape Town, until March 17. Tel: (021) 421?7695

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