One of the world’s most beloved children’s books for adults, The Little Prince, is being put on stage at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown by The Market Theatre, which is one of South Africa’s most historic and popular theatre institutions.
While the coalition of these three forces is cause for celebration, it is also slightly odd. The Market Theatre is known for its distinctive South African voice and focus on South African stories. From apartheid days when those stories of the people was a protest by nature of their very existence, to presenting the unique experiences of local life today. Against this rich legacy, a play based on a whimsical book by a French aviator seems a departure. But departures are not to be feared, they indicate new arrivals. And The Little Prince, originally written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the early 1940s, heralds the arrival of the Market Theatre’s new company Kwasha! at the festival, and on the Main programme nogal.
Kwasha! was established this year as a collaboration between the Market Theatre and the refurbished Windybrow Arts Centre (which falls under the Market Theatre Foundation umbrella) to bridge the two-year drama training at the Market Theatre Laboratory and the professional theatre sector.
So if you were fortunate enough to have watched Hani: The Legacy which won a rare and highly-prized Gold Ovation Award on the Fringe at festival last year, you’ll be first-hand witness to this shift. Three of the Hani cast make up the six performers in the intriguing Little Prince.
Intriguing because of the nature of the book, which is quite fantastical; containing house-sized asteroids with volcanoes, boababs that have to be continually weeded, a demanding but unique rose. It is also an insightful critique of humanity: an asteroid has a single man on it who declares himself king and issues orders that can only be obeyed, such as ordering the sun to set and to rise again the next day; A businessman who is too busy to appreciate the stars because he is counting them so that he owns them; a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of drinking. There are others.
It sprung from the imagination of a man who crashed and spent eight days in the Sahara trying to fix his aeroplane. How Kwasha! is going to stage it only adds to that intrigue.
Clara Vaughn, who co-directs with Mwenya Kabwe, isn’t giving too much away, other than letting us know Mathews Rantsoma fills the role of the narrator (who himself knows that adults have lost the ability to perceive important things and are so busy with trifles they cannot see when a picture is of a snake that swallowed and elephant and not of a hat) and the other cast members play multiple roles.
Lesego Chabedi, Sinenhlanhla Mgeyi, Balindile ka Ngcobo, Khanyisile Ngwabe, and Millicent Tintswalo play the fox, the snake, the rose, the king, the drunk, the businessman, the geographer, the lamplighter, the narcissist, the railway switchman, and the merchant. As to who plays the little prince who asks questions until they are answered, will require seeing the play.
What is also interesting about this play, besides its creative potential, is the way it has been funded. Institut Français Afrique du Sud (IFAS) has come to the party because de Saint-Exupéry was French and famous (and they’ve translated the book into Zulu and Afrikaans) but more pleasantly surprising is an auditing and accounting firm – the France-headquarted Mazars – has joined the dancefloor.
Mazars is not just providing funding support but are actually involved. Employees at their Johannesburg office came to watch the dress rehearsal and took a tour around the Market Theatre, and more than that, they’re also participating in workshops after the run in Grahamstown.
The cast will tour to cities such as Cape Town, Durban and Bloemfontein where the firm has offices and get the staff out of their cubicles and involved in creativity and play based on the very themes that emerge from The Little Prince.
Vaughn says there was a wonderful moment of recognition among the auditors, accountants, and actuaries watching the rehearsal, particularly when the little prince encounters the businessman counting the stars.
“They recognised that,” said Vaughn.
Certainly The Little Prince by this talented cast and production team is bound to remind us that ‘one sees clearly only with the heart. The essential is invisible to the eye’.
The Little Prince is suitable for all human beings from the of six, and plays in the Victoria Theatre at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown from 28 June to 1 July. Book here.
This profile is sponsored by The Market Theatre