Theatre review: 10 to 14 November, November 2020, Cape Town, South Africa

What: Zakes Mada’s Ways of Dying Where: The Baxter Flipside Running time: 90 minutes. No interval Bookings:  When: November 10-14, 2020 Time: 7pm every night and 3pm on Saturday Nov 14 Tickets: R75; R50 for students Info:

Zakes Mda’s hauntingly beautiful, tragic and yet hopeful first novel, Ways of Dying is on at the Baxter Flipside for a short season for six performances. It is book about death and life; violence and shattering loss which leaves everything untethered and in a heap; dumped. Within that is the possibility of transcending pain, violence and death through community, friendship and love. It is a richly textured novel, steeped in Mda’s magical realism with images and protagonists shape shifting, under the omniscient chorus of a community trying to get to grips with its own story.

We are in lockdown level 1, with the opportunity to see this celebrated novel, Ways of Dying, adapted for the stage, in a year of death, of Covid-19 as we hold on to ways of living, behind our masks. The cast is made up of fourteen 4th year students’ from UCT’s Centre for Theatre, Dance and Performance Studies (CTDPS). The production is presented by the Baxter Theatre Centre and CTDPS. 

These students have spent the bulk of the year, studying online, self-taping in their Zoom bubbles. Here they are tackling Ways of Dying which is not the average student play. Well, I have to say that this is not the average student production. It is astounding to see this level of performance by a graduating class and more so because their year was curtailed by the pandemic. In six weeks, this production was put together, with the creative team (Lara Foot, Mdu Kweyama, Bongile Mantsai Patrick Curtis, Mannie Manim and Leigh Bishop) and others, working with assistants from the honours programme. Movement (astonishing dance), voice, characterisation – all of that evokes the landscape of Mda’s narrative. 

Mda is a visual artist as well as a writer and his books are image rich. Imaging is very much part of this production – imaging the unimaginable. For instance, on stage, there is a pile of shoes – a garbage heap– evoking shoes at death camps. I thought of Auschwitz. It could be a pile of shoes after a clean-up at a protest. It is a very bleak landscape that we sit around and gaze into but within that we are lifted by the verve, energy and artistry in bringing these characters to life. The performers own the story. They pour their voices and bodies into Mda’s characters. By owning the story- the play that they are in- they can shape the ending –as Mda does in the book. They are flummoxed by the events in their story- as we all are – and we should be. It is our story. Lara Foot adapted and staged the novel twenty years ago, in Johannesburg at The Market Theatre. Sadly, violence is still the reality as it was when Mda published the book in 1995. It is set at the end of Apartheid as we limped into democracy.

The play resonates now – vividly. The violence is brutal and shocking to see on stage. It is a mirror of what is around us. We are living with the pandemic. Many people are living with bereavement – coping with deaths of loved ones from Covid. There has been loss of income; isolation. We are living with increasing gender based violence – said to be the highest in the world. It is time of uncertainty, anxiety and fear – of what may come next- whether the vaccine will reach Africa or if there will be another lockdown. With all of that, we must do our best to find magic and meaning, wherever we can. Through love, community and friendship and a charismatic figure like the central protagonist, the professional mourner, Toloki, providing inspiration, we must strive to create our own bubbles of happiness.

This is an impressive production and I hope that it returns for a longer season in 2021.

Creative team includes:

Adaption and direction: Lara Foot

Direction and choreography: Mdu Kweyama

Direction and music:  Bongile Mantsai

Set design: Patrick Curtis

Lighting design: Mannie Manim

Costume design: Leigh Bishop.

Cast: Liam Walsh, Tamzin Williams, Megan Tromp, Francis Sholto-Douglas, Klara Schoonraad, Emma-Jane Pieters, Bokang Ntsutle, Basetsana Motloung, Tshiamo Moretlwe, Tebatso Molapo, Cullum McCormack, Brett Ilsley, Anathi Godlo and Sam Alexander.

❇ Image credit: Tebatso Molapo; middle Emma-Jane Pieters, Basetsana Motloung; back Liam Walsh in Ways of Dying. Photo by Rob Keith