Ndebele Funeral

A poorly constructed corrugated iron shack is all Thandi (Zoey Martinson) can call home. Slowly dying of AIDS, she has become defeated, bitter and tired of life. Mandisi (Yusef Miller), an old university friend of hers, comes to visit once in a blue moon. He is so unlike her in many ways – lively and happy, he has left the slums behind and can take joy in his existence. But he cannot forget his old friend: “you are like caffeine – it may make you twitch a little bit but you can’t live without it.” In other ways, however, they are the same, brought together by celebrating their differences, passionate about their views and willing to sacrifice everything for them. On this particular meeting, that passion is put to the ultimate test, as Thandi is determined to end her life even though Mundisi is adamant that it is still worth living.

The start of the show lacks power and intensity. Awoye Timpo’s direction has incorporated a series of South African songs and dances that immediately thrust an extraordinary level of passion right into the faces of the audience. All actors perform with a carnal force that drives them onwards. But then the dance stops and the scene is left bland by comparison. When Mundisi pushes Thandi to give speeches that should be filled with anger, Thandi seems too subdued: “they piss on our faces and convince us it’s rain” should indicate how enraged she is with the political system (both past and present), but the line loses its bite. When Thandi challenges Mundisi’s religious beliefs, his fight doesn’t have the punch that it should do given his passionate character. Then the dialogues separates, the two actors address the audience individually with flashbacks to their youth, and the whole performance starts to become more convincing.

The best scene in the show comes halfway through, when the young Thandi and Mundisi first meet at a university dance. Mundisi is awkward, Thandi is stand-offish. But eventually they connect, Mandisi unknowingly recites some beautiful poetry and they dance together, freed by any social constraints to stamp out the songs and rhythms of South Africa. Suddenly the actors come alive and, like their characters, seem relaxed and at ease in themselves. From then on the play takes on a new energy and the desperation of each character comes through. The aggressive interaction with the government official Jan (Jonathan David Martin) embodies this passion – all three actors push themselves to bring something more to the performance and reach new heights by doing so. The final freeze frame in the show says it all. Harrowing to the audience, Thandi looks relieved and happy at her fate as the stage plunges into blackness.

There are moments of intense brilliance here, but these are too few in what should overall be a powerful play that tackles apartheid, the class divide and political unrest in South Africa.

Ndebele Funeral plays at Summerhall Main Hall (Venue 26) until 30 August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. For more information, visit the Edinburgh Fringe website.