At Christmas time, we are often treated to similar tropes and familiar, well-trodden stories of the Nativity; many of us are intimately familiar with all the aspects of the story and are unlikely to be reminded of any facets or surprised by a fresh take on a story that holds power in our familiarity with it. This makes putting a Christmas story on for contemporary, adult audiences something of an artistic challenge, as one would strive to hold the familiar parts close enough that the audience can still recognize the story, while pushing the envelope just enough so as to be fresh, but not sacrilegious or blasphemous, as it were.
It was with this attitude that I attended the Market Theatre’s production of John Kani and Barney Simon’s The Lion and The Lamb, subtitled “The Story of Jesus Christ.” Not knowing what to expect, I was absolutely stunned by the power and passion of the piece, as from start to finish the performers brought unique energy and style that flavoured this story in a unique and unmistakable fashion.
Narrated by John Kani, the story of Jesus’ life – from conception to ascension – is brought vividly and beautifully to life by the onstage vocalists. From the opening harmony, which was given almost concussive power from the singers’ immaculate sharpness, I sat riveted in my seat, transfixed by the weight of the story on stage.
Although Kani is assisted at times by featured chorus members Lebo Barole and Lerato Gwebu, it is his calling card magnetism and charisma that drives the piece forward. From the thundering rage of an aggrieved God to the humble tenderness of the child Christ in the temple, Kani’s truly indescribable stage presence is an absolute joy to behold. He holds in his delivery all the performative power of a fire and brimstone preacher, but also possesses the nuance and subtlety to brilliantly time a comic line, or sell an emotional moment between two characters that he alone is portraying. The privilege of being able to watch John Kani in the John Kani Theatre is something that should not be taken for granted, and his full powers are on display here.
The story is greatly coloured and textured by the magnificent vocalists and band on stage, dressed gorgeously in Nthabiseng Makone’s beautiful costumes. The vocalists, led by Lebo Barole and Lerato Gwebu, and Mpho Kodisang’s band, are almost otherworldly in their precision and skill, consistently surprising and getting vocal reactions from the audience as unexpected turns in performance are revealed one after the other. Perhaps even more impressive is the vocalists’ ability to function as a choir – perfectly measured despite their obviously abundant individual talent. Enormous credit must go to music director Tshepo Mngoma here, as they have put together a meticulously constructed musical whole out of immensely able individual parts.
James Ngcobo has done his customary outstanding job directing, using Nadya Cohen’s somewhat minimalist set in intricate ways, finding interesting spaces using the physicality of the performers. Mandla Mtshali’s lighting design was another particular highlight, bathing the soloists in heavenly light as they took centre stage, one by one. Assisted by Jurgen Meekel’s exceptional AV work, the technical aspects of the show are again at the Market Theatre’s singularly high standard, seamlessly weaving all the separate parts into one glorious whole.
The Lion and The Lamb is really a fantastic work, perfect for a family holiday season trip to the theatre. Get to the Market Theatre and see the story of Jesus – and Christmas – in all its glory.
The Lion and The Lamb is on at the Market Theatre until December 22nd. Tickets are available at the box office and on the Market Theatre website.