BWW Reviews: Neil Coppen's TIN BUCKET DRUM Honours the Act of Storytelling
Neil Coppen's TIN BUCKET DRUM has, so far, had a successful life since its first performances some years ago. Following a critical triumph at the 2010 National Arts Festival, the play opened to rave reviews in New York last year. Finally, TIN BUCKET DRUM has made its way to Cape Town, presented by the Trust at the Kalk Bay Theatre, and the wait was well worth it. In fact, TIN BUCKET DRUM is undoubtedly a one of the highlights of the current theatre season in South Africa because everyone involved in bringing the show to the stage, from concept through to performance, has honoured what lies at the core of all theatrical endeavours: the act of storytelling.
In TIN BUCKET DRUM, Mpume Mthombeni tells the tale of Nomvula, a child who is born into a dictatorship in a village known as Tin Town. Drought and despots do not make for an easy life in Tin Town, but Nomvula's mother chooses to settle down there after a lifetime of running towards a better future. The ruling class, represented by an overbearing official known as the Censor, keeps everyone else in check with a powerful tool: silence. Nomvula's passionate heartbeat disturbs that silence - but is the heartbeat of a child is enough to ignite a revolution?
Coppen's fable is a powerful allegory for our current political situation, where apathy towards the perplexities of South Africa's freedom seems to overwhelm personal, responsible and impassioned citizenship. His script is a melting pot for a number of theatrical traditions and techniques, including Nguni storytelling, shadow puppetry and seventeenth century Kabuki. While these diverse influences, drawn together in production by Karen Logan, make for rich and textured theatrical experience, it is Coppen's supple prose that gives the piece its unity. The story he crafts is compelling and his argument that even a child has the potential to change the world is a powerful one.
Mthombeni delivers Coppen's words with conviction, taking on several diverse characters as she does so. But it is not her conviction alone that makes her performance magical; her aptitude for total transformation as she shifts from storyteller to a Nomvula to the Census and back again is astonishing. By turns fiery and vulnerable, Mthombeni is a force of nature in a piece that allows her to showcase her range as a performer.
Mthombeni is joined onstage by Wake Mahlobo, who provides live accompaniment for the tale. Playing a range of percussive instruments, Mahlobo also contributes to the play's soundscape using an array of found objects, including cutlery and crockery. His presence adds immeasurable dimension to the show.
Aesthetically, Coppen has designed a simple, but effective visual world for TIN BUCKET DRUM. A particularly successful aspect of the design is the lighting, which soaks the stage with mood from the most rangy and evocative rig I have seen at the Kalk Bay Theatre in the past few years. The best thing about the technical aspects of this show is that they are all used in service of the story instead of trying to compensate for shortcomings in the depth of the narrative as so many high profile theatrical ventures tend to do.
Coppen has a heart-warming anecdote from his childhood in which he tells of a wooden puppet box built for him by his father when he was eight years old. Back then, he used to make pocket money by sharing stories at children's birthday parties. He compares the theatre he makes today to that puppet box, and from it the stories of TREE BOY and ABNORMAL LOADS as well as that of TIN BUCKET DRUM have emerged. Hopefully, Coppen's puppet box is vast in its depth and will continue to be the channel for his remarkable talent as a storyteller. And all being well, he will have performers like Mthombeni and Mahlobo and producers like Imbewu to bring his work to life as they have for this remarkable production of TIN BUCKET DRUM. See it before it closes this coming weekend.
TIN BUCKET DRUM plays the Kalk Bay Theatre until 7 September 2013. Bookings are through the Kalk Bay Theatre website, which also has further information about the show.
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer