Life, etc

THEATRE REVIEW: Revival of Zakes Mda play confused by gender-switched casting

These are some of the salient points in Zakes Mda’s You Fool, How Can The Sky Fall that still resonate today – and sadly always will, given the nature of some who seek power. Yet despite its moments of biting commentary, the satire fails to deliver the thorough mauling that it should.

Politicians. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them.

They’re rarely a wholesome bunch though, as Zakes Mda’s old play You Fool How Can The Sky Fall reminds us. This political satire plays out under a blank flag to suggest that it could be based in any country, but it sits easily in South Africa, where it was first staged in 1995, a year after the first democratic elections. We find a Cabinet ensconced together and riven with internecine squabbling, under the dictatorial eye of the Wise One, the President. He leads a revolutionary government that seized power after a coup, populated with canny fighters, not astute politicians. A cadre more skilled in destroying than rebuilding. Molefi Monaisa is good value as the president, with his rotund stature triggering a visible reminder of Jacob Zuma and making it unlikely that his selection for the role was mere coincidence. He does a lovely job, benevolent and jolly as he dances, dark and menacing when he lashes out. Mda highlights how this government of revolutionaries hasn’t lived up to its promises. How powerful positions are granted as rewards, not through merit, or bestowed to keep your friends close and your enemies even closer, as the old saying goes. And we laugh as a sharp line tells us that there’s always a quorum, even if the only person present is the president.

These are some of the salient points that still resonate today – and sadly always will, given the nature of some who seek power. Yet despite its moments of biting commentary, the satire fails to deliver the thorough mauling that it should.

Partly that’s a weakness in the script. For a work that’s 23 years old it still feels underdeveloped. It’s not the sharpest, most succinct writing, disjointed at times and flawed by non sequiturs, as if not all the ideas in Mda’s head have translated to the stage.

It’s also needlessly ambiguous. We’re never sure if the Cabinet ministers are actually in power, or merely imagine they are. Occasionally one of them is pulled off for interrogation by an unnamed enemy, and they suspect there’s a traitor in their midst.

One graphically described torture scene sounds like textbook apartheid tactics, so perhaps Mda was implying that whites were still in control even though these black revolutionaries have supposedly taken over. Such ambiguity weakens the production, rather than adding intrigue.

Then the Young Man (Pulane Sekepe) arrives, as a mechanism for introducing the voice of the outside world. At first that feels like a clumsy insertion, but if not all the characters question his presence, maybe I shouldn’t either. It becomes a useful addition too, allowing Mda to tell us how the people are rebelling against these corrupt overlords. But here’s another unsettling feature – the characters are acted by the opposite gender, like the smooth and sycophantic Minister of Justice played by Moliehi Makobane. A good actress, for sure, but it grates to hear her referred to as him. Ditto the other roles, with the very male Zenzo Ngqobe playing the Minister of Health and being addressed as a woman, or a princess. Since the original production was cast with five men and one woman I’m assuming the gender switch is a deliberately provocative casting choice by director James Ngcobo, but I found it jarring. You’re preaching to the converted when women acting as men talk about how they are superior, so they have to treat women with condescension and ultimately crush them. Rather let a man say those words, and let us heckle and bristle with indignation. There’s enough to focus on without adding the contrived confusion of gender-switched casting to muddy the already unclear waters. The rest of the cast, Linda Sokhulu, Nthati Moshesh and Zola Nombona, do a solid job, and the play certainly stings with some of its ever-relevant political barbs. But overall, You Fool How Can The Sky Fall is striving to be more than it is. DM

You Fool How Can The Sky Fall runs at the Market Theatre until October 28. Tickets from Webtickets.