By Danielle Farrow
Nzinga was an African princess, born in the late 16th century, who lead the people of Ndongo against the Portuguese invasion into the land now known as Angola, so called by the Portuguese when they mistook its name. That she, a female, came to rule was just one of the incredible achievements of this fascinating and complex woman.
As Nzinga, storyteller Mara Menzies is captivating, beautifully portraying the drive, pride and passion of someone who can clearly be admired and yet has a number of negative traits. As herself, introducing the story of Nzinga, Menzies explores a fascinating part of her family history in a very engaging manner, and throughout the piece connects strongly with her audience. Her physicality on changing characters – aided simply by a couple of garments and a few accessories – includes vocal distinctions of accent and age and is excellent: clear, believable and strong in characterisation.
Menzies is accompanied by a musician playing various African instruments, including the shekere (which looks like a bottle-necked jug), mbira (thumb piano) and marimba (wooden xylophone), who leaves his seat at the side on occasion to dance with her or add a touch to the action. The atmosphere created, against a backdrop of bamboo blinds painted with three trees, is redolent of African heat and culture. The struggles of Nzinga, within her family and against the invaders is richly told, with plenty of humour as well as drama. There is a certain consistency of pace for some periods that might have benefited from being broken up once or twice, but Menzies’ extreme watchability mitigates this.
The central tree is partially a white screen, used for the projection of three characters of importance to Nzinga, and here execution mars the production, proving very frustrating. While it is a concept of merit to have the sacred baobab be at the heart of this warrior’s questioning of self and motivations, allowing memories of / visitations from those she has loved and lost, the video images and sounds are distorted by special effects. There are pauses ill suited to the length of her replies, and words are so garbled that they cannot be properly understood. If this had not been integral to the sections in which these characters appeared to Nzinga, the performance and general high standard of this production would merit four stars. Unfortunately, what was being said – and lost – connected deeply to Nzinga’s responses, and the self-searching she was undergoing at these times was therefore obscured by the loss of clear context and stimuli.
This is a design / technical flaw which needed rectifying and hopefully that will occur, for this production about a woman who reached the heights of leadership against huge odds deserves a fine future, her struggle reflecting ideas of religion, spirituality, ancestry, gender, tradition, history and racism which are still due consideration today.
Nzinga – Warrior Queen is well worth attention, for its beautiful storytelling, important information, and for Mara Menzies’ rooted, skilful and mesmerising performance.
1-9 August (not 5), 16:00 (17:00) @ just Festival, St John’s Church