Whether you love classical or choral music or not, there’s no escaping the sheer beauty and power of St Matthew Passion, by Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble.
An adaptation of Bach’s original choral work – which explores the final days of Jesus Christ, his betrayal, trial, and crucifixion – this unique reworking will quite simply take your breath away.
The Isango Ensemble has made a name for themselves reimagining Western Theatre classics within a South African setting and this could perhaps be their most powerful work to date with its parallels to a divided South Africa and its themes of forgiveness and equality.
As the audience enters, the performers are already milling casually on stage which immediately breaks the expectation of a traditional classical or choral performance, grounding the show in authenticity and connection.
The simple staging and basic costuming (black t-shirts and pants) add to this but don’t be fooled – when the show starts, it is anything but basic.
Thanks to Music Director Mandisi Dyantyis (who also play Jesus), the vocals swing effortlessly back and forth between complex classical arrangements – angelic arias and thunderous choruses – and equally complex yet even more beautiful African folk singing.
The performers’ voices are literally heaven-sent and the accompanying marimbas add depth while being sparse enough to allow the vocals to carry the weight.
The choreography is clever, swinging also between stillness and an earthy, vigorous joy and energy.
The storytelling lies in the dramatic vignettes woven throughout, told in a mixture of English, Afrikaans and Xhosa.
But, any language barrier is dissolved by the emotional heft of the performances.
Any audience members not familiar with the stories of the Gospels might miss some of the finer nuances but this doesn’t take away from the overall power and energy of the show.