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9 September, 2019

Africa meets Bach in a retelling of the age-old story of the last hours of Christ's time on earth

I was excited to see the much acclaimed, award-winning South African Isango Ensemble’s interpretation of St Matthew Passion.

At the 2015 Brisbane Festival I had seen Les Ballets C de La B’s captivating Coup Fatal and imagined this performance, although from a different company with different performers, would be in the same vein.

However, although there were some similarities, the two shows were miles apart.

Despite the outstanding vocal performances by the thirteen strong male and female cast, I found myself dozing off slightly and wishing for it would stop dragging on.

The semi-staged concert had no major lighting or set design and costuming and props were kept to a bare minimum.

Props were sparse yet, cleverly used.

Such as a ladder standing in for a crucifix.

Performers appeared barefoot in black t-shirts and jeans with the odd coloured piece of cloth or jacket to distinguish characters.

The obvious difference was the character of Jesus who sported a denim shirt to make him recognisable amongst his disciples.

This was just as well because at times the use of mixed language – minimal English, South African dialects and Bach’s operatic score – made it difficult to follow and distinguish characters.

If you are not familiar with the Biblical story of Christ’s last hours you may find it all a bit difficult to follow.

Along with group vocals in perfect harmony, there were several outstanding operatic male and female solo vocal performances throughout the show.

However, the highlights for me were when the whole cast came together in traditional South African songs, laments and dance.

The energy and smiles of the cast during these segments were contagious.

Throughout the performance, I found myself wishing for more South African and less of Bach.

The powerful voices were accompanied by a full marimba orchestra and some everyday household items were intriguingly converted to musical instruments.

Although St Matthew Passion was not completely my taste, I appreciated the magnificent vocals, marimba accompaniment, clever use of props and energy and enthusiasm displayed by the cast.

Interpretation of a well-known story is difficult at the best of times.

I felt that the incorporation of more South African song and dance would have gone a long way to livening up the heavy, well-known story of Christ’s last hours on earth.

Would I recommend this performance?

It would depend on who I was talking to.