Empatheatre, NAC and National Arts Festival present Isidlamlilo (The Fire Eater)

Limited Run in Durban @ The Sneddon Theatre (4 to 9 November 2022).

By CityLife Arts Writer

Durbanites are in for a rare theatrical treat, when Isidlamlilo- the Fire Eater begins a week long run at the Sneddon Theatre on the UKZN campus from 4 to 9 November 2022.

Isidlamlilo isan electrifying new one-woman tour-de-force brought to life by acclaimed actress Mpume Mthombeni (who plays Agatha on E-tv’s Durban Gen) and award-winning theatre-maker Neil Coppen with set-design by Greg King, lighting by Tina Le Roux and sound-design by Tristan Horton. 

This acclaimed new South African play which premiered on the main programme at the 2022 National Arts Festival to rave reviews and standing ovations with critic Steve Kretzeman writing: “Woven together from true stories and testimonials gathered by the Empatheatre company, with a near flawless presentation and delivery, Isidlamlilo expands our horizons so often cramped by fears real and imagined, and imparts some of the courage the dispossessed have to daily gather to continue to live. This is fantastic theatre.”

Over the course of 80 minutes, Mthombeni, through a frank, comic and captivating storytelling, relays the death-defying life story of Zenzile Maseko. Maseko, a sixty-something Zulu grandmother, rents a cramped room in a Durban’s women’s hostel, and is haunted by her past working as an IFP assassin (fire-eater) in the build-up to the 1994 elections. When the home affairs mistakenly declare her dead and are unable to reverse the error on their system, Zenzile finds herself cast into the middle of a Kafkaesque nightmare, driven to desperate measures to prove she still alive and made, in the process, to reawaken parts of her identity and past that she has spent a majority of her adult life trying to suppress.

Maskeo’s story seamlessly propels us back and forth through time, traversing the shifting landscapes of KwaZulu-Natal and  while charting critical events in the province’s post-1994 trajectory through to its present day floods and insurrections. While the story offers a critical look at the eddying cycles of violence and revenge that play out across generations, it is most of all a story about redemption, regeneration and reinvention.

The script is written by Standard Bank Young Artist Award winner Neil Coppen in collaboration with Mthombeni, and is based on a range of testimonials shared with them during their Empatheatre research processes alongisde the Urban Futures Centre (UFC). Together, the creative team has woven in elements of Zulu folklore, biblical mythology, magical-realist framings to make for an unforgettable theatrical experience that speaks to both the country’s haunted past and present-day complexities.

Together Mthombeni and Coppen alongside Dylan McGarry, are the co-founders of Empatheatre which sees the team forging creative responses to complex social concerns. The company was recently awarded the prestigious Bertha Artivism Award for its theatre and social-justice work.Mthombeni and Coppen have worked in close collaboration for the past 15 years creating and touring works both locally and internationally including the multi-award-winning Tin Bucket Drum which went on to tour the country and world for several years.

Isidlamlilo has been made possible by funding from the NAC PESP fund, The National Art’s Festival with additional support and thanks to the Drama department and the UFC (Urban Futures Centre) at Durban University of Technology.

Isidlamlio takes place on Friday 4, Saturday 5 and Tuesday 8 November  at 19:00, Sunday 6 November at 14:30, Wednesday 9 November 11:00 (For schools/Community Theatre groups and open to public). The performance is 80 minutes long, and there is an age restriction of 13+.

About Empatheatre

Empatheatre was founded by Neil Coppen, Mpume Mthombeni and Dylan McGarry in 2014. The company and methodology has been heralded for its unique approach which sees the creative team forging creative responses to complex social concerns while uniting a range of stakeholders including policy-makers, citizens, community based performers, storytellers, artists, musicians, activists, human-rights lawyers and academics. Empatheatre has been responsible for launching several ground-breaking Research-based theatre projects over the last decade in South Africa including Soil & Ash (focusing on rural communities facing pressure from coal-mining companies), Ulwembu (street-level Drug addiction and harm reduction advocacy), The Last Country (female migration stories), Boxes (homelessness and Urban land justice inequalities in the city of Cape Town) and Lalela ulwandle (an international project supporting sustainable transformative governance of our oceans). The company was recently awarded the prestigious Bertha Artivism Award for their theatre and social-justice work.

Mpume Mthombeni is an award-winning stage and film actor theatre-maker, researcher and facilitator who hails from Umlazi, Durban. Mthombeni has taken on multiple roles over the years in theatre, radio, film and television, drawing international acclaim for her performance in Tin Bucket Drum which she toured to New York in 2012 garnering rave reviews. Some of Mthombeni’s other theatre credits include Animal Farm,Soil & Ash, NewFoundLand, Ulwembu, The Last Country and Lalela uLwandle. Her work with Empatheatre focuses on merging research and performance and she considers the theatre-maker’s role in contemporary South Africa to be that of healer. Mthombeni is widely known and recognised for her roles in popular day time television series’ Imbewu and Durban Gen where she plays Agatha.

Neil Coppen is a renowned and prolific storyteller and theatre-maker hailing from Kwa-Zulu Natal . Coppen has won several major awards for his writing, design and direction work including Standard Bank Ovation Awards, Naledi’s, Fiesta and Kanna Awards, the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Drama 2011 and the 2019 Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama. He is one of the six South African playwright’s to have been granted a staged reading of his work at The Royal Court Theatre. 

Some of Coppen’s most acclaimed works taught in schools and universities locally and internationally include Tin Bucket Drum (Published by Wits University Press), Tree BoyAbnormal Loads (published by Junkets), Izipopolo, and NewFoundLand (published by Junkets) and his adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm which toured South Africa for over five-years. In early 2020, Neil collaborated with Canadian First Nations dance company Red Sky Productions in Toronto on the premiere of a new work titled AF. More recently Coppen directed an ambitious online performed reading and reimagining of Hamlet whichwas recently awarded the Naledi Award for best online performance 2022. Earlier this year Coppen alongside visual artist Vaughn Sadie and in collaboration with a community of Oudtshoorn based arts practitioners founded The Karoo Kaarte project (supported by the KKNK). Karoo Kaarte is a large scale public participative storytelling and theatre project which headlined the 2022 KKNK festival and whose inaugural theatre productionOp Hierie Dag was nominated for 7 Kanna awards.

Production Credits

Produced by Empatheatre

Performed by Mpume Mthombeni

Directed by Neil Coppen

Written by Neil Coppen in collaboration with Mpume Mthombeni

Lighting Design Tina Le Roux

Sound design by Tristan Horton.

Set Design by Greg King 

Additional Set dressing Dylan McGarry and Neil Coppen. 

Production Manager Tina Le Roux.

Rain SFX Steven Woodroffe 

Poster Design Dylan McGarry 

Ticket are R130.  10% Group discounts for block bookings of ten or more. Student/scholar and pensioner discount price of R110 applicable at outlets on presentation of a valid card. Bookings through Computicket. https://tickets.computicket.com/event/isidlamlilo/7201674 or call 0861 915 800.

 For schools and community theatre bookings contact Margie at margie@thinktheatre.co.za or on 0832519412

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