For a 20-year-old play, The Mother of All Eating is sadly more relevant now than it was in the past.
Unlike science fiction stories where the predictions often prove embarrassingly wrong, the play’s prediction of government corruption leeching all the way to the top has been fulfilled.
So kudos to playwright Zakes Mda, but shame on us, South Africa.
Except that this play highlighting and satirising corruption is set in Lesotho. Although we kept having to be reminded of that, in case we thought the government ministers and parastatals being lampooned were ours. And of course they are, so retaining the play’s original Lesotho setting when the author is South African and the problems are ours seems like pussyfooting around. Like shouting ‘stop thief’ then pointing at the wrong man.
It’s time to bite the bullet and bring it home.
It wouldn’t take much doing, just some name changes and a dropping of the references to Lesotho.
Director Makhaola Ndebele has already changed the play substantially by dividing the original one-man script between two actors. So the role of the corrupt principal secretary to a government minister is now shared between Mpho Osei-Tutu and Jerry Mntonga.
They’re both excellent, Osei-Tutu with his rolling eyes and expressive face turning up the emotions, and Mntonga as a less flamboyant, smoother version of The Man. They act with skill and verve as the dialogue flips between them mid-sentence, one picking up where the other leaves off, flinging a phone between them to carry on a conversation one starts and the other finishes.
The sound effects come from a piano played by Bernett Mulungo, which cleverly mimics a ringing phone, a knock on the door and the different tones of the unseen characters trying to extract a share of corrupt cash from The Man.
Numerous true and uncomfortable points are made, usually with humour and often with a squirm. The nameless Man could be any of us, as they repeatedly point out.
There’s irony too, as our character condemns those who are too greedy, or who want to grab a slice of the loot he himself has stolen. Bitter truths are delivered repeatedly: only the people with principles are fired, he explains. Corrupt civil servants are promoted, to stop them from exposing the others and so the useless ministers can also benefit from their cunning brains.
“I’m scared of poverty; have you seen how this country treats its poor?” our character says. Then when he describes his lavish home built on sidelined government money, could any of us fail to think of Nkandla?
Having two actors represent the charming, wily and utterly contemptible character called The Man is a clever move that instantly shows how widespread corruption is.
Dividing the role between Osei-Tutu and Mntonga also gives us double the action, and with a single actor the show could certainly have become too sluggish.
A few people found the play tedious anyway, or suddenly remembered they had a dodgy deal of their own to conclude, and left during the performance. In a theatre the size of the Market’s Barney Simon studio, that’s annoying and disturbing for the cast as well as the audience.
Yet The Mother of All Eating would benefit from a cut to eliminate some repetition, pare down a few sections where the story is laid on too thickly, and generally be tightened for our reduced attention spans.
But most of all, we need it bringing home.
The Mother of All Eating runs at The Market Theatre until 1 June. DM
Photos by Ruphin Coudyzer
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