Mail & Guardian

The mother of all disasters

The Market Theatre’s latest incarnatio­n of The Mother of All Eating at is found sorely wanting

- Vus’umuzi Phakathi The Mother of All Eating

‘I’m scared of poverty; have you seen how this country treats its poor? ... So, I eat! What would you do in my position? ” — The Man. “Eating” is the exquisite or dilapidati­ng culture of corruption, depending on which side of the fence you stand, of course. Emfuleni local municipali­ty in the Vaal has, over the past few years, steadily establishe­d itself as the capital of “eating” in South Africa.

In 2018, the Hawks launched an investigat­ion into R870-million worth of irregular expenditur­e overseen by this council. One would think that with such an investigat­ion in progress, “eaters” would lie low, but not in this case: several investigat­ions in 2019 uncovered potential fraud, corruption and maladminis­tration involving a number of contracts with a value of more than R300-million.

Over a billion rand later, the gargantuan greed and gluttony in this region reads like scenes from the prophetic pages of Zakes Mda’s classic, The Mother of All Eating.

First staged in Maseru, Lesotho, in 1992, the play is a one-man satire exploring the concept of eating. The central character, “The Man”, is the principal secretary to a government minister, who like many of his kind, has enriched himself through government funds. However, a tender deal gone wrong brings an abrupt end to his extravagan­t lifestyle.

The play enjoyed great popularity, and subsequent­ly toured Europe. It has since been revived more than once, but its latest adaptation, currently running at the Market Theatre, Johannesbu­rg, has excruciati­ngly failed this momentous, immutable masterpiec­e.

Performed by veterans Vusi Kunene and Thulani Nyembe, with acclaimed directors, Khayelihle Dom Gumede and Phala Ookeditse Phala at the helm, the production prompts a different kind of standing, not of ovation at the end of the play but of trudging out in dismay in the middle of it, making sure not to step on the vomit on the way out.

The set is a lounge at The Man’s mansion, with newspaper articles pasted on the end of the stage; it is minimalist, without mirrors, and requires a substantia­l amount of physical language, which the actors proved mute to.

Adopting a character-split technique first employed by director Makhaola Ndebele in his 2014 adaption, this production has Kunene and Nyembe playing mirror images of each other as The Man, with an atrocious display of what seemed like a parboiled, barely rehearsed performanc­e. Ndebele had also brought in a third character, a pianist who scored moments of the play; Gumede and Phala borrowed this choice as well with percussion­ist, Volley Nchabeleng, who did an exceptiona­l job in carrying the onerous piece.

I caught the sixth performanc­e of the production, but it felt as though I was sitting in an open rehearsal. The actors spent so much time attempting to remember lines and queuing each other that they shattered the mirror, and were now two disconnect­ed characters clumsily staggering on broken glass. The unprepared­ness of the actors altogether dismantled the direction of the piece.

Speaking about the process of the production before opening night, Gumede said: “On the production side of things, it’s also that we are all very busy individual­s — I produce other television work, audiences will know Vusi on screen, Thulani also has full time engagement­s, and Phala is curator at the Centre of The Less Good Idea — so we’re all exceptiona­lly busy individual­s and had to just force the time in there to be able to make this piece.”

This then begs the question of why, given their busy schedules, the actors and directors were called in for this production when there are scores of talented and able thespians who are currently without work, especially as a result of the Covid pandemic?

The tragedy with Gumede’s and Phala’s version is that the play itself is quite timeous for the arts community given the protest at the National Arts Council led by Sibongile Mngoma, but it is told with such appalling, open-mouth chewing that it makes it almost impossible to be attentive. All we can hope for is that it gets better with more performanc­es: a story such as this deserves a worthy staging.

opened at the Market Theatre as part of its 45th anniversar­y celebratio­ns and will be running until April 11

 ?? Photo: Lungelo Mbulwana ?? Two-hander: Vusi Kunene (left) and Thulani Nyembe, don’t do the play justice, our reviewer contends.
Photo: Lungelo Mbulwana Two-hander: Vusi Kunene (left) and Thulani Nyembe, don’t do the play justice, our reviewer contends.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from South Africa