In early 1879, the British Empire suffered its worst ever defeat at the hands of an indigenous people. Armed only with assegai spears and cow-hide shields, a Zulu force exterminated a British column equipped with modern rifles and artillery. It is this story and the events which led up to it that Mbongeni Ngema tells.
The Zulu, someone told me afterwards, is intended for the kind of middle-aged people whose attendance says more about them than it does about the show.
He begins with Shaka, the military genius whose conquests put the Zulu Empire on the map, before proceeding with a tale of scheming, betrayal, fratricide and — not rarely — heroism. Part folk-tale, part history, part patriotic myth, The Zulu benefits from Ngema’s vitality and powerful, expressive voice. It provides important access to the cultural heritage of a storytelling people. It is also, unfortunately, a mess.
More troubling even than the frequent verbal slips are the disjointed choreographed song- and dance-sequences, performed with the help of Matshitshi Ngema, who occasionally wanders across stage. His shifts from rapt onstage listener to participant are awkwardly handled, and the physical theatre in general is unaccountably casual. Also inexplicable are lengthy passages in the Zulu language. Incomprehensible to the vast majority of the audience, they make the story — already a barrage of alien proper names — harder to follow; when succeeded by a translation they are literally pointless.
Presumably they, like the show more widely, are intended to pander to a kind of authenticity fetish. If this is what the show is selling, it does so remarkably badly: Ngema, bare above the waist but for a tooth necklace, an armband, and a head ring, is also wearing formal black trousers and dress shoes; his associate, meanwhile, accompanies what one assumes is Zulu music with a guitar.
The Zulu, someone told me afterwards, is intended for the kind of middle-aged people whose attendance says more about them than it does about the show. I’d have trouble disagreeing with him.