Young Vic, London SE1
Opened 29 November, 2007

One of my most persistent reservations about theatre work from other cultures is that, rather than responding to the form or content of the work itself, we may simply be luxuriating in exotica. I was therefore on high alert regarding the Young Vic's seasonal presentations: versions of Dickens and Mozart, to run in repertoire, by a South African company (with one white performer) in English and Xhosa. The fact that these productions are directed by Yorkshire-born Mark Dornford-May, former chief at Broomhill Opera, might have been further cause for concern.

As it happens, I already knew from experience that Dornford-May is one of the most respectful and engaged cross-cultural directors. His Anglo-South African version of the Chester mystery plays, Yiimimangaliso, had too brief a West End run in 2002, and his township-set film version of Bizet's opera, U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha, won the Golden Bear at Berlin in 2005. He is adept at finding common notes and strains between cultures and building an experience upon that shared sense of humanity.

Thus, for instance, the quasi-Masonic tests undergone by Tamino in The Magic Flute here become akin to Xhosa rites of passage, and the sound of the flute itself is rendered by a trumpet with a sunny fluidity that recalls Hugh Masekela. This, however, is the only non-percussive instrumentation in the piece. Much is performed a capella, with harmonic textures that manage to combine Mozart and South Africa. On other occasions accompaniment is provided by a phalanx of xylophones in different registers; the requirement to hit a note repeatedly to give it any kind of sustained duration lends the piece a more allegro vivace quality, leaving the voices to set the mood of its more reflective passages. (Papageno's magic bells? Bottles tuned by part-filling them with water.)

Ikrismas Kherol begins with a simple but brilliant coup de théâtre. A complete blackout is broken by flashes of light overhead, and noises which gradually resolve into a work-song. The miners of uScrooge's mine are proceeding through the roof-space down to the stage, where they put in a full shift of rattling and battering before knocking off for Christmas, only to have their sentimentality derided by uScrooge herself.

This biggest change (the Christmas ghosts are also female, although Marley is a male asset-stripper) actually serves to lower the sugar level. It seems more genuinely shocking that uScrooge has no quasi-maternal compassion either for her student niece or for Bob Cratchitt's daughter Tiny Thembisa (another couple of gender-bends), the latter of whom is collecting sponsorship money for her schooling; her father's fellow miners are embarrassed at having so little to give, but give they do, whereas uScrooge contemptuously offers a banknote "for her performance" after the girl is possessed by the spirit of Marley.

Dornford-May's wife Pauline Malefane makes a fearsome, snake-haired Queen of the Night in Impempe Yomlingo, but paradoxically this singer gives a stronger performance as an uScrooge who has sworn off her childhood love of music. As she watches the Ghost of Christmas Past's video presentation of her mother's death and elder sister's terminal illness contracted as she hustled to afford food for the youngster, Malefane maintains a face which is utterly impassive and yet suggestive of mountainous, suppressed emotions. The definitive sign of uScrooge's redemption is when she begins to sing, simply and unaccompanied, an elegy for an unknown beggar girl. Dickens' story is now a world away from our lives, but it was written as social agitation against the evils of Ignorance and Want; Dornford-May and his company have made both its sorrows and its hopes, as well as the maturation of the lovers in The Magic Flute, come thrillingly, heart-burstingly alive once more.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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