A Man of Good Hope review at the Young Vic, London – ‘hard-hitting yet inspiring’

Isango Ensemble's A Man of Good Hope at the Young Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton Isango Ensemble's A Man of Good Hope at the Young Vic. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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Founded in 2000, the Isango Ensemble from South Africa has shown its versatility in internationally acclaimed productions ranging from new versions of classic operas – Carmen, The Magic Flute and La Boheme – to stagings with different literary bases.

Whatever its genre, A Man of Good Hope’s origins in Jonny Steinberg’s 2015 book of the same title gives it a strong narrative foundation. Its central character Asad, a refugee from war-torn Somalia, makes his journey across the continent to reach South Africa, where his situation is in some respects scarcely better than where he started off. By the interval he has arrived in what he hopes might be a promised land, yet the prejudice and violence he encounters in his new environment mean that this is far from being simply a feel-good show.

Yet in many ways it’s a genuinely inspiring one, testifying to the potential for goodness within the human spirit even as it shows us the worst that people can do to one another. Asad’s journey is equally an eternally relevant reminder of what some of the refugees we see on news bulletins every day are endeavouring to escape.

As he grows from an eight-year-old boy to a young man through the course of the piece, Asad is played by a sequence of performers – all excellent. But while there are undoubted standouts in this part-adventure story, part-moral fable, it’s the quality of the 24-strong company as a whole that ultimately impresses most. They can act, they can dance, they take turns as the orchestra – seven marimbas, some drums, feet and voices – and their singing is of outstanding quality. No microphones are needed, and when they combine into a chorus, the result is magnificent. Clearly operatic in its musical and vocal ambition, the result will linger long in the memory.

The Isango Ensemble’s hard-hitting staging of Jonny Steinberg’s book is ultimately inspiring