Memory Of How It Feelsby Leila Bloch and Mark Wessels / 10.03.2011
Does one really want to know, how it feels? Free from sentiment, sop or theatrical indulgence? Neo Muyanga’s visceral production The Memory of How it Feels is not your average musical. Directed by Ina Wichterich-Moane, written and composed by Muyanga and performed by Apollo Ntshoko, Chuma Sopotela and Andile Vellem, it’s a performance that wipes away the syrupy sentiment and politics and exposes something deeply personal. At once aesthetic and multidimensional, it left the majority of the audience stunned.
The Memory of How it Feels offers a rigorous counterpoint to chamber orchestra music, taxing physical exertion and sharp, but disjointed narration. You may not be able to take Africa out of Shakespeare but clearly you can take “The Shakespeare out of Africa” and search for a new form of theatre that remains true to African tradition while moving beyond the binaries of both Western and African expression. This is Muyanga’s space; at once challenging, uncompromising and didactic.
The focused harmony of the show was disrupted by a violinist who abrasively clapped out of time which gave free improvisation a whole new level of meaning. Elements of jazz, unexpected vocals and even laughter became new elements. The script (previously used on radio) combined with cello and violin makes for a pure listening experience that ranges from pain to pleasure. The studio room at the Baxter contains the audience in an intimate space, keeping in the tradition of how chamber music was originally performed. Like walking into the best moments of a rehearsal, the piece is at once conversational and abstract.
Steeped in Zulu tradition, premised on the exchange of beads with encoded messages, the narration moves from childhood games to bars and nightclubs, through the narratives of love in Soweto, Maputo and Alexandria. Ntshoko occupies center stage with a swift and all-consuming delivery but alongside a light-hearted and poignant Sopotela, his provocative female counterpart.
Simple costumes; a single bow tie or a thin shift and minimal prop use, leaves room for the actors to create clear evocations of place. A musty bar, a disappearing road. Vellem, a deaf performer, uses sign language and a different kind of listening to lead many of the performances. Writhing, running or wall-crawling, the actors’ bodies move from limp and languid to tightly contorted wind up dolls. Like a fluid sentence, each movement is modulated by pauses, style and rhythm.
The pre-verbal speaks loudly in this piece. “Does this mean we are all hippies?” Apollo questions the audience sceptically. Despite having moments where it sings effortlessly with the universal languages of love, lust and longing; feeling one’s way through a piece of theatre this rigorous is hard work, messy and unclear, but ultimately cathartic and rewarding.
*The Memory of How it Feels plays at the Baxter Theatre until 19 March 2011.