Theatre Review: Isidlamlilo – Boxed In, Or Burning Out?

July 25, 2023




Isidlamlilo: The Fire Eater / Directed by Neil Coppen / Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg


Coming out of the theatre after a performance of Isidlamlilo, the atmosphere is not what most theatregoers would expect. An audience member mumbles, “I am not ok,” and that feels like about the most honest, concise assessment possible. This is not a play that you enjoy; it is a piece you are affected by.

Mpume Mthombeni’s forceful performance expertly allows for moments of humour, but for the most part, this is an immersive dive into parts of identities – both national and personal – that nobody in the audience really wants to revisit.

Mthombeni’s character, Zenzile Maseko, has her disgruntled state of heart and mind reflected by her surroundings. Greg King’s compact, superbly detailed set – of the hostel room in which Zenzile lives – speaks to both her poverty and the challenges she faces as an older lady (she’s 60-something) and as a stroke survivor, unable to fully or easily carry out whatever tasks each day holds. Tina Le Roux’s lighting and Tristan Horton’s sound design support and accentuate these mood-setting surroundings, giving the production a discomfiting sense of claustrophobia.

For a good part of the play, exactly what is going on not immediately clear, other than that, for white audience members and others who avoided the atrocities of apartheid, the living conditions of those directly affected were and often remain awful. Neil Coppen and Mthombeni’s script doesn’t aim to shame anyone; it simply presents a picture and allows observers to react.

But as Zenzile continues to narrate her story, stripping away layers as she goes, revulsion for what she stood for and achieved in a past life and the pathos of her current situation vie for pride of place in the audience’s minds. Both of those threads are vividly explored – the latter via a glitch at the Home Affairs office that would be funny if it wasn’t so relatable. The former is disturbing and occasionally terrifying, with Zenzile relating her role as an Inkatha Freedom Party operative, one who removed perceived obstacles to political progress in the most ruthless way possible.

As violent as her past was, that space allowed Zenzile a defined identity and purpose. Now she has lost that – literally and figuratively. And her struggle – variously viscerally angry, deeply disappointed and stirringly assured – feels familiar in ways that are difficult to admit to. What part of her current situation is Zenzile’s fault? What part of the blame lies at the feet of communities in conflict that overlooked her? How much culpability is due to the IFP, who have clearly not repaid her loyalty?

Uncovering such issues is part of the mandate of Empatheatre, the superbly-named company founded by Coppen, Mthombeni and Dylan McGarry that creates research-based narratives to help process and agitate around subjects from land inequality to drug addiction, and with Isidlamlilo they raise questions and spark unexpected responses, some of which will take audience members considerable time to work through.