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Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Helen Iskander translates Okri’s winning novel into magical theatre pieces. (Review by Caroline Smart)

“In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river it was always hungry.” So begins the opening of the play The Famished Road which is based on Nigerian author Ben Okri’s Booker Prize winning novel and trilogy.

On reading this impressive publication, acclaimed director Helen Iskander was enchanted with its magic realism which incorporated the spirit world with the "real" world. She became so fascinated with the possibility of telling the story on stage that she launched into the daunting task of adapting the essence of the novel into a play.

The result is Fresco Theatre’s impressive production, The Famished Road, which appeared on the main programme of the 2009 National Arts Festival in association with Aardklop Nasionale Kunstefees.

Dealing with the battle of good versus evil, The Famished Road features a stand-out performance from an exceptional young actor. Aged 18, Themba Ntuli stopped growing at the age of seven but this obviously did not halt the growth of an impressive dramatic ability and sensitivity usually only found in someone ten years older. His unique capabilities make him perfect for the leading character of Azaro, a spirit child who chooses to stay in the world of the living rather than, as his fellow spirits do, die young and return to the idyllic world from whence he came.

Another fine performance comes from Mncedisi Shabangu as his father, a simple but volatile man. The strong cast also features the solid talents of James Cuningham, Lindiwe Matshikiza, Labella Dani and Tinah Mnumzana.

Lisa Younger has designed an effective set which incorporates the simple hut that is Azaro’s home and a bar that grows from a humble tabletop to creative splendour as its owner becomes more affluent. Added to these are some memorable puppets depicting the spiritual world in and out of which Azaro moves as well as a range of notable costumes. I loved the one for the tree (played with silent eloquence by Matshikiza).

The performance I saw in Grahamstown tended to be a little drawn out but I feel sure that this is due to the fact that the production hasn’t settled yet. When it does, as I know it will do, it will offer a seamless and fascinating theatrical journey. Let’s hope we get to see it in KZN! – Caroline Smart