Directed by Mark Dornford-May, starring Pauline Malefane, Andries Mbali, Andiswa Kedama, Zweilungile Sidloyi, Sibulele Mjali, Lungelwa Blou and Andile Tshoni.
When Bizet's 'Carmen', a French opera in a Spanish setting, was first performed in 1875, it was denounced as a failure. Since that ignominious beginning it has become hugely popular with audiences throughout the world and 'Carmen' has been the inspiration for numerous film and theatre adaptations. The latest version of this timeless story is the award-winning South African film 'U-Carmen eKhayelitsha', which translates as 'Carmen in Khayelitsha'. Sung to Bizet's familiar score in the native Xhosa language, complete with click consonants, the strong sense of place is further reinforced by the inclusion of traditional South African song.
The undoubted star of 'U-Carmen...' is Pauline Malefane, a Venus in blue jeans and converse trainers, who takes the proud and powerful title role. Set in the present day in the township of Khayelitsha (where Malefane grew up), it tells the story of Carmen, a wilfully independent cigarette-girl, and her carelessness in love. José, in the original, here becomes Jongikhaya (Tshoni), a young policeman, and the bullfighter Escamillo is local-boy-made-good as world-renowned singer Lulamile Nkomo (Sidloyi). Although the plot is occasionally sluggish, this over-familiar tale is made anew in South Africa amongst the shanties and shebeens, gangsters and thuggish cops, entertainers who escape and ancient blood rites.
Most of the cast are drawn from the ranks of ensemble theatre company Dimpho Di Kopane (DDK), which was set up in 2000 by Mark Dornford-May and Charles Hazlewood, former Artistic and Musical Directors of London's Broomhill Opera. Their first major production was 'Carmen' (in English), also starring Malefane, which toured the world, including a stop-over in Ireland, to huge acclaim for four years. It was a brave move to translate the opera to Xhosa for filming but, given the South African setting, a correct one. Although he was an experienced theatre director, 'U-Carmen...' is Dornford-May's film directing debut - and a triumphant one.
As with all opera, where dialogue is sung rather than spoken, 'U-Carmen...' may not appeal to a wide audience but it is compelling viewing, even for those who may not know much of the music or story of the original. An unusual adventure.