In condensing down the story of your life, which events do you retell and which do you let go?
Striking that balance is crucial, otherwise you end up trying to tell too much and somehow end up telling too little. That’s a weakness that detracts from Touch My Blood, a novel by columnist and social commentator Fred Khumalo that has been adapted for the stage by James Ngcobo.
The play is the story of Khumalo’s own life from his childhood until his Apartheid era exit to Canada. It makes a lively, colourful tale, told with spirit and vibrancy by a cast who switch into different roles to play many additional characters. The simple but effective stage set is permanently busy as characters come and go in the melee of Hammersdale Township.
Two different actors split the narrative role of Fred between them, although the impressive Lebo Toko could no doubt handle the task alone. The aim, apparently, is to show two Freds — the passionate idealist and the one who survived through it all. A subtlety that for me at least went unnoticed.
Khumalo is a wordy soul, and his writing comes across as convoluted, sometimes pompous and often overly intellectual for the sake of it. When one Fred talks of “the bountifulness and fecundity of life” the poetic language sits uneasily with the earthiness of the story being told. It’s not that the script needs dumbing down, but rather honing down to make it more accessible.
Then at times it swings the other way, and seems to be written with foreigners in mind when it explains South African quirks, and particularly Zulu traits, as if whiteys in the audience may not understand. Yet Touch My Blood is told in a blend of English and Zulu, and the audience really needs to be fluent in both to fully enjoy the show.
Hlengiwe Lushaba-Madlala is wonderful as Fred’s mother, with an expressive face filling in the few gaps in her demanding script. Andile Mngadi is equally talented as his father, bringing out the humour of this meek man caught in an increasingly mad world.
Ngcobo has probably treated the novel with too much deference, trying to retain too many incidents and too many characters rather than paring back to focus on the highlights. The result is a bulging script so intent on recounting events that it fails to allow time for the emotions it scratches to really surface. Thought-provoking incidents in a lifetime of memories are brushed over too quickly to let the poignancy or the powerful lessons emerge.
It’s taxing for the narrators too, which may be partly why Ngcobo chose to split the burden between two actors. But if the story line is too intense for an actor, it also risks being too intense for the audience.
Review by LESLEY STONES
Touch my Blood
Dates: Wednesday, 8th July until Sunday, 23rd August 2009.
Venue: Main Theatre, Market Theatre.