Only 14 people walk onto a stage. 70 minutes later, the audience has experienced a retelling of the New Testament stories of the final days of Christ—complete with the Last Supper, betrayal, trial, crucifixion and resurrection.

Even from that short description, aficionados will understand that this was not a traditional performance of the 18th Century Bach oratorio. Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble have created a response to Bach’s St Matthew Passion that draws on recent South African history, English Mystery Cycles, township music, and Bach’s grand choral work. The differences from the traditional performances of the Bach oratorio were many. The Isango Passion has edited highlights (70 minutes, not 3 hours), a variety of languages (including what may have been Zulu and Xhosa), no double choir (a cast of 14 voices), and no double orchestra (music was played on marimba and plastic drums).

But the piece will have been recognisable to those who are more familiar than I am with the Bach oratorio. The key elements of the story were conveyed, often movingly and with great visual impact (look out for the Last Supper tableau, and the use of the ladder for the crucifixion and resurrection scenes). The vocal range and power of the performers was at its finest in singing some of the well-known themes (including 'Erkenne mich, mein hüter'), and the township dancing was uplifting.

The St Matthew Passion is a brave undertaking. The Isango Ensemble, led by Mark Dornford-May (Director) and Mandisi Dyantysis (Music Director, who also plays Christ), proved that they are certainly up to a challenge. As with SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill (which was also part of the 2019 Brisbane Festival), the talented cast are bird-warblers, actors, foley artists, singers and musicians. To attend any of their performances is a treat. But if I had to choose just one production to see, then SS Mendi gets my vote every time.

The Isango St Matthew Passion is very new; the Brisbane 2019 show was the Australian premiere, and only the second ever performance of the production). It was perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the St Matthew Passion did not have quite the same fluidity, nor ‘passion,’ of the wonderful and more established SS Mendi. But this is a performance that I’d love to see again—particularly in a smaller venue. Such powerful voices demand a large stage, but perhaps the QPAC Playhouse (capacity 850) would have better suited the Isango St Matthew Passion than the QPAC Concert Hall (capacity 1,600-1,800). Seated two-thirds of the way back in the Stalls (row M), I found it difficult to enjoy all of the spoken words, and would have much preferred to have an opportunity be closer to the semi-staged performance, in order to better experience the emotional range of the piece.

Time to start saving up for the top seats for next tour by the talented performers of the Isango Ensemble (and here’s hoping they have Jesus Christ Superstar in their sights).

Verdict: One to look out for—particularly in venues of less than 1,000 capacity.

Audience tip: Sit as near to the front as you can, and look out for future performances by Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble—in particular, any shows in smaller venues (their 2019 Brisbane Festival shows closed on 7th and 8th September). Tickets for the 8 September 2019 (3pm) performance of the St Matthew Passion were $47-$65 (plus booking fee).  70 minutes. Suggested 10+ (adult themes , including the representation of a crucifixion).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Sunday 8 September 2019 (3:00pm) performance.

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