A narrative is a powerful device to trigger emotions when it has a real, human story to tell, but when you put music to it, it gains a magical momentum and becomes almost therapeutic in the extent of escapism it gifts. That allure is undeniably present in the cantata, a work for voices and instruments, currently on stage at the Baxter Theatre in the form of Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair.
This production however takes the cantata an exquisite step further, and under the direction of Lara Foot, makes it a work for voices, instruments and animations. Through very clever use of projected images with artwork by Fiona Moodie, the story of Themba, a brilliant young architect, is sketched out from student life right through to him losing his grip on reality and having to fight his way through the ‘snakes’ in his head to find hope again.
His story is supplemented with the parallel perspectives of his mother (wanting to save her son) and girlfriend (dealing with the loss of her love), along with the doctors, nurses, priests and traditional healers who also lend their voices to the chorus of his maddening journey. As a very creative touch, every time a certain character sings about his or her experience, that associated performer's face glows through the image as a spotlight, doing so without giving it a cartoonish effect. In fact, I got the feeling of strolling through an art gallery and the subject matter of each 'portrait' appearing to me, to sing their story. What really caught my attention was that the characters appeared to be drawn to the ocean in search of peace, almost as if they wanted to waves to sooth them. A very caring, comforting image, but also symbolic of an element that has the potential to rage and leave you feeling helpless and out of control.
Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair is definitely both pleasing on the ear and eyes, and what a treat to also have a live orchestra, which showed off lively violin tones balanced with a sultry saxophone and a seductive cello. Honestly, I could just sit there listening to them all night. Hats-off to Galina Juritz and Dizu Plaatjies for their music composition, skillfully performed under the direction of conductor and choirmaster Chad Hendricks.
As tenor Monwabisi Lindi (Themba) sang his first notes alongside the sinfonietta and my mouth literally dropped (what a voice!), my first thoughts were , "someone needs to cast him as the Phantom!". He just has that utterly pure and perfect voice that demands your attention and keeps it. But to be honest, as the production moved along I quickly realised that every voice that joined him was equally as brilliant and perfect in own right. It doesn’t often happen that everyone in an ensemble is matched absolutely evenly. Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair is one of those rare occasions where any one performer can step forward and claim his or her moment in the limelight as a soloist.
My theatre loving friend, Maria Vos, actually summarised the performance brilliantly:
“I want the vocal ensemble to follow me around and narrate my life through song. I think it’s a show that catches you unawares with its powerful music and knocks you out with its depiction of some of the shocking realities in our country.”
The whole production, inspired by Dr Sean Baumann’s work at Valkenberg Hospital, is a delicately respectful yet powerfully striking balance between joy and fear, echoing in the libretto the actual words and phrases spoken by psychiatric patients he encountered throughout his life as a specialist dealing with the phenomenon of psychosis.
Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair is a definite theatre highlight for the month of February, but you only have until the 19th to see it at the Baxter Theatre. Book your tickets for this beautifully performed cantata at Computicket.