The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings








Etcetera and
Short Term Listings


NYC Restaurants


New Jersey







Free Updates
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp London London Review
Isango Ensemble: Aesop’s Fables/The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/La Bohème

by Sebastian King

What looks like a man, walks like a man, talks like a man, but wears chains like a dog? — Hermes, Aesop’s Fables
Isango Ensemble: Aesop’s Fables/The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/La Bohème
Isango Male Ensemble Membersin The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Photo: Afridiziak)
Founded in 2000 by director Mark Dornford-May and music director/singer Pauline Malefane, the Cape Town-based Isango Ensemble have y established an international reputation for their reimagining of Western classics. With a firm focus on music, their operatic productions in particular have received great acclaim, including the award-winning film U-Carmen eKhaleyitsha and their Olivier Award winning version of The Magic Flute. This week they began a month-long residency at Hackney Empire with a trilogy of productions, showcasing this extraordinary company at their very best.

The first of these shows is Aesop’s Fables, a family-friendly commentary on slavery and freedom which follows Aesop (Luvo Rasemeni) on a quest for freedom from his tyrannical buffoon of a master Escallywags (Simphiwe Mayeki). Instructed by Hermes (Busisiwe Ngejane) — a diva in gold with sassy attitude and riffs to match — to learn from the animals, he travels towards Mount Olympus, picking up important advice such as ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ and ‘look before you leap’ from the various creatures he meets along the way, including a troupe of busy ants, a big-but-not-so-bad wolf, a Rastafarian goat and of course the Hare and the Tortoise, whose famous race runs in parallel to Aesop’s journey. With frequent outbursts of upbeat song and plenty of comic moments, the joyous energy of the performers is contagious, and it is impossible not to leave the auditorium smiling.

Next up is The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists which relocates Robert Tressell’s socialist novel from Edwardian England to 1950s Cape Town. Solomon (Mhlekazi ‘Whawha’ Mosiea) is a painter struggling to persuade his co-workers that they can change their situation, and shouldn’t resign themselves to a life in poverty in the face of Apartheid. Despite moments of humour, the tone is much darker, and the production is stripped right back. Although there is music throughout, it is performed a capella: a female ensemble in whiteface makeup performs a recurring version of ‘We’re In The Money’ while the workers sing songs of the struggle, and at one point a rousing rendition of the protest song ‘Red Flag’.

The final production is La Bohème, with its community of artists living in the Khaleyitsha township of modern-day Cape Town, a place where the effects of poverty and the threat of TB are all too real. Conducted by Mandisi Dyantyis, the orchestra of marimbas and steel pans completely transform Puccini’s score, and the ensemble are in fine operatic voice. Partnered with Mosiea’s tender Lungelo/Rudolpho, Pauline Malefane as Mimi is full of warmth and vulnerability and her crisp soprano made me feel like I was hearing the music for the first time. A special mention must also go to Nobulumko Mngxekeza who almost threatens to steal the show as the seductive Musetta.

Never has the word ‘ensemble’ seemed so apt. The whole company rarely leave the stage throughout the three performances. It speaks volumes that despite playing the lead in La Bohème, Malefane is just at home playing the marimba at the back of the stage – and even taking on the humbling cameo role of Ass – in Aesop’s Fables. A strong sense of community flows through these three plays, not just thematically, but in the connections these performers have with their material, with each other, and with their audience. A film of La Bohème produced by Stephen Daldry will be going into production shortly, but don’t miss this opportunity to catch this very special company live.

Subscribe to our FREE email updates with a note from editor Elyse Sommer about additions to the website -- with main page hot links to the latest features posted at our numerous locations. To subscribe, E-mail:
put SUBSCRIBE CURTAINUP EMAIL UPDATE in the subject line and your full name and email address in the body of the message -- if you can spare a minute, tell us how you came to CurtainUp and from what part of the country.
Isango Ensemble: Aesop’s Fables/The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/La Bohème
Aesop’s Fables written by Peter Terson
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists written by Stephen Lowe, adapted from the novel by Robert Tressell
La Bohème written by Giacomo Puccini, translated by Peter Cann with Isango Ensemble
Adapted and directed by Mark Dornford-May

Starring: Pauline Malefane, Mhlekazi ‘Whawha’ Mosiea, Simphiwe Mayeki, Luvo Rasemeni, Nobulumko Mngxekeza, Zamile Gantana
With: Noluthando Boqwana, Mandisi Dyantyis, Thobile Dyasi, Ayanda Eleki, Puleng Jackals, Nontsusa Louw, Bongiwe Mapassa, Zanele Mbatha, Katlego Mmusi, Zoleka Mpotsha, Zodwa Mrasi, Busiswe Ngejane, Sonwabo Ntshata, Notuthuzelo Ntshona, Tukela Pepeteka, Luvo Tamba
Music Directors: Mandisi Dyantyis & Pauline Malefane
Choreographer & Associate Director: Lungelo Ngamlana
Technical/Set Design: Dan Watkins
Costume Design: Leopald Senekal, Aja Marneweck & Gail Behr
Lighting: Chloe Kenward
Running time: Aesop’s Fables Two hours including interval, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists One hour 50 minutes including interval, La Bohème Two hours 10 minutes including interval
Box Office: 020 8985 2424
Booking to 3rd June 2012
Reviewed by Sebastian King based on 19th May performances at Hackney Empire, 291 Mare Street, London. E8 1EJ (Tube: Hackney Central Overground)

Highlight one of the responses below and click "copy" or"CTRL+C"
  • I agree with the review of Isango Ensemble: Aesop’s Fables/The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/La Bohème
  • I disagree with the review of Isango Ensemble: Aesop’s Fables/The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/La Bohème
  • The review made me eager to see Isango Ensemble: Aesop’s Fables/The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists/La Bohème
Click on the address link E-mail:
Paste the highlighted text into the subject line (CTRL+ V):

Feel free to add detailed comments in the body of the email . . . also the names and emails of any friends to whom you'd like us to forward a copy of this review.

London Theatre Walks

Peter Ackroyd's  History of London: The Biography

London Sketchbook

tales from shakespeare
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
Click image to buy.
Our Review

©Copyright 2012, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from