There is something poignant about The Fisherman opening on the eve of Mandela Day, a narrative centered on the extensive agony of reconciliation and the futility of retributive justice. The parallels are clear and add more layered depth to a story that on its own contains rich layers of meaning and metaphor.
The play is a two-hander focusing on the reunion of two brothers, who through their reminiscing act out the many memories of their early lives in 1990s Nigeria, and the ultimate tragedy that befell their family. Adapted from Chigozie Obioma’s 2015 novel The Fishermen by Gbolahan Obisesan, the intense storytelling provides a unique lens through which to view South Africa’s own complicated history with reconciliation and restorative justice.
The two performers, Siyabonga Thwala and Warren Masemola, accomplish countless changes in characters and personas as they reenact their childhood memories and lead us to the fateful climax of violence that drove them apart. Their physical performances are nuanced and lack the gimmicky nature that can sometimes imbue impressions and impersonations of other people. These two fully inhabit their numerous characters with every aspect of their being, shifting shape, mannerisms and voices to quickly and easily draw on different people from their past without needing to constantly state for the audience who they are playing.
Masemola in particular totally embodies everyone and every thing he plays, from young children with unfocused eyes to an old women with a stoop, and in one memorable scene even plays an amusingly leggy chicken with Thwala! The chemistry between these two actors is paramount to the success of such an intense, layered piece, and they crackle and shine in alternate strokes as they switch back and forth between current tension and past carefree brotherly love. Their performances, more so than in most productions, are the lifeblood of the show, and they throw themselves into it so marvelously that it is possible to get lost in the twitches of Masemola’s eyes and the hunch of Thwala’s shoulders. Indeed, dialect coach Dike Sam has done an outstanding job with the actors’ Nigerian accents, which serve to add to the realism and make the text work in a way that simply would not have been possible without them.
As we have come to expect from the Market Theatre, the production is directed in visually interesting and challenging ways, with the audience’s positioning immediately calling to mind the river that the titular fishermen pulled their catch from. Nadya Cohen’s quite gorgeous set design ingeniously incorporates a “drop in” projection screen – although its use as a screen is effective as a storytelling measure, she has also found a way to perfectly enclose the performance space, making our tense moments feel more claustrophobic and difficult to escape.
Mandla Mtshali’s lighting design shades the memories with dappled effects – as our childhoos memories often are viewed through rose-coloured glasses – while starkly and harshly lighting the present to throw the tough reality into sharp relief. As mentioned above, Jurgen Meekel’s use of music and projection to envelope us in the world of Nigerian myth and wonder that the tale evokes is very effective and both grandiose and intimate in equal measure. It is always a pleasure to find a production that manages to use audiovisual effects with skill, and does not lay on the effects too thickly so as to numb the audience to the emotional work occurring on the stage. Here is one of those instances, where music and projection images only ever ratchet up tension and emotion in a highly charged environment.
As the tale of tragedy and violence draws to a close, we as the audience would do well to remember the futility of retributive justice, violence and vengeance that we see play out before our eyes. As our political climate – both locally and internationally – continues to be driven by vitriol over virtue, a visit to the Market Theatre to watch The Fishermen around this Mandela Day can provide a soothing balm to the wounds of injustice we may be feeling.
The Fishermen is playing at the Market Theatre from July 12 until August 4. Tickets are available from the Market Theatre website and box office.