Isango Ensemble’s story of a refugee journeying across Africa is nothing short of spectacular. Every scene ends in a carnival of colour, music and movement, bound seamlessly together by an ensemble brimming with talent.
A Man of Good Hope is based on the book by Jonny Steinberg, the real-life story of Asad who fled from Somalia to South Africa via most of the rest of the continent. It premiered at London’s Young Vic in 2016, and is now playing in rep with another Isango show, SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, at the Royal Opera House’s gorgeously refurbished Linbury Theatre. The double bill feels like a statement of internationalism and diversity, and of opening up the narrow definition of what opera can be.
Because while Isango has brilliantly re-imagined existing operas before, this feels like a new form – devised opera. There’s sung recitative and stomping arias, but its musical influences range from across the African continent, a musical odyssey as much as a personal one for Asad. When the cast breaks into full voice, the joyous noise raises the roof.
The whole ensemble is on stage pretty much the whole time, jumping between acting, dancing, playing marimbas or percussion. Empty door frames and other half-formed props gesture entire worlds into existence.
While the story itself is full of sadnesses and setbacks, horror and loss, the seriousness of the tone sits alongside a lightness of spirit that makes the piece really powerful.
Strong performances from the three actors playing Asad at different ages anchor the piece. Young Siphosethu Hintsho is particularly spry and cheeky. If this is the kind of work that’s going to characterise the new Linbury, long may it continue.