If you put to one side its African locale for a moment, you could argue that the story of A Man of Good Hope reads a bit like a Dickens novel. A young boy, suddenly orphaned and left to fend for himself, sets off on a swashbuckling odyssey; he jumps boarders, hustles on street corners and falls in love, chancing upon kind relatives and wicked villains along the way. And, as in Dickens’ ‘social’ novels, through a perfect blend of comedy and tragedy we learn to view the cruel world in which our hero inhabits through the eyes of a realist. Life is hard for Assad Abdullahi, and it’s not about to get any easier.

<i>A Man of Good Hope</i> © Keith Pattison
A Man of Good Hope
© Keith Pattison

But where the former fills his pages with elegant dialogue and Victorian verbosity, this thrilling production from the Isango Ensemble – based on a book of the same name by South African novelist Jonny Steinberg, which in turn is based on a true story – is marked for its asceticism. Six marimbas and a scattering of reclaimed oil drums and dustbins are all that accompany the 20-strong cast, who use these instruments to summon a soundscape as stark and violent as the slums Assad inhabits. Lips and tongues do for ringing telephones, stomps serve for gunshots, and simple diatonic harmony – often in bare fifths – pervades. Dialogue is equally forthright, delivered with a sardonic bite that perfectly frames the show’s hard-hitting narrative, and the steeply raked stage is left bare save for the odd door frame or cardboard box – props whose emptiness echoes the titular hope manifest in Assad’s battle with diversity.

What is striking about A Man of Good Hope is the collaborative process in which it was conceived. Artistic director Mark Dornford-May workshopped the book with the ensemble for three weeks back in 2014, joined later by South African-born artistic director of the Young Vic David Lan and then Steinberg himself. They blocked out specific scenes in a collaborative, democratic process, with composer Mandisi Dyantyis adding their ideas to a musical pot brimming with both African and Western ingredients. In amongst the traditional Kenyan, Zambian, Zimbabwean and Tanzanian folk song we hear chorales that nod patently to Bach, ghostly melodies redolent of Britten and the occasional irreverent allusion to English light opera (the ‘rum pum pum’ refrain was particularly amusing). Dyantyis conducted the ensemble majestically from the marimba, and the resulting drama whisks along so fast that the singer-dancers’ feet scarcely seem to touch the ground.

But the show belonged to Siphosethu Hintsho, who, as the youngest incarnation of Assad pivots the drama from heart-wrenching tragedy to brush-away comedy all in one scene. The howl emitted as he cowers over the body of his murdered mother has barely stopped reverberating around the Linbury rafters before he treats us to an ecstatically funny lesson in American pronunciation – rehearsed in the hope of successfully gaining asylum in the States. But despite his dream, Assad winds up on the outskirts of Johannesburg in a township similar to that which the Isango performers themselves hail from. And that is why the Dickens comparison can only go so far. For whilst at any moment the English author might offer up some deus ex machina – a rich uncle perhaps, or some mysterious benefactor – Assad must contend with the brutal reality of being a Somalian refugee in cruel, war-torn continent – one divided up ‘like a cake’ by white colonists.

A Man of Good Hope is ultimately a political drama. It serves as a poignant reminder of the damage that colonialism’s legacy continues to inflict, as well as a cutting satire on the anti-immigration rhetoric that plays such a large role in modern political discourse. “South African jobs for South African people,” cry the residents of Assad’s adopted township, echoing Gordon Brown’s promise of “British jobs for British workers”. In the show’s closing scene we are told that Assad does not want to read the book his story has inspired. What has he to gain from revisiting the turbulence that has, up until now, defined his life? It is therefore up to us to confront it for him, as a lesson in both remorse and tolerance, in the hope that such events don't end up defining the lives of yet another generation of Somalians.

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