‘St Matthew Passion’ was mesmerising.
In 1727, Johann Sebastian Bach composed one of the most stunning choral and orchestral works ever created. Performed all over the world in large and small-scale formats, ‘St Matthew Passion’ examines Jesus’ final works as told by the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible. As part of the 2019 Brisbane Festival, this narrative has been reimagined by the Isango Ensemble in a 70-minute performance of storytelling in its highest form.
The themes, spirituality and events of Christ’s story resonate with cultures and groups across the globe, whether actively religious or not. The 13 strong Isango Ensemble took the Bible story, something which the modern world often scoffs at, and made it beautifully accessible. This particular adaptation of Bach’s original work allowed the traditional classical sounds to shine through while flawlessly weaving in South African dialect and traditional folk music. The result was a piece of theatrical work which impacted audiences on a spiritual level.
The majority of ‘St Matthew Passion’ was adapted into traditional language, something that the largely English speaking audience could not literally understand. However, this performance showed that human connection runs much deeper than mere words alone.
The moments when audiences couldn’t understand the words coming from the stage were when the emotional narrative was strongest. It is an entirely different theatrical experience when you cannot intellectually follow what is happening on stage. This performance showed how beautiful it is when more than just the human mind connects with a story, ‘St Matthew Passion’ was a show that engaged the soul, mind, and spirit.
When English was used, it gently assisted audiences in navigating the flow of the story, and let those who knew the Bible link the action on stage to the tales in the Book. Direct quotes were taken from the historical text and intelligently woven throughout the performance, creating a sense of grounding.
It is easy to be engulfed by the enormity of QPACs Concert Hall, with its hundreds of seats and grand organ, the simple tin staging and marimbas appeared small in comparison. However, as soon as the Isango Ensemble opened their mouths and hearts, the 1600 seat hall became an intimate gathering.
There was no complex set, lighting or costuming. The performance used the bare bones of the theatre and was somewhat Brechtian in nature, telling seemingly disconnected stories and using simple costume pieces to distinguish between characters. The only performer consistently wearing colour throughout the entire performance was Jesus and those around him swapped in and out of coloured items to represent the different characters who were pivotal in the narrative.
The beauty of Isango Ensemble is that it’s one of the few groups which truly operate as an ensemble. Within the programme, there are no leads identified, or performer bios provided. While Jesus could be the technical ‘lead’ in this story, the entire work was ensemble focused from beginning to end. Every body and voice on stage was integral to the success of the performance. Isango Ensemble operated as a single entity and the effect was mesmerising.
The distinction and the beauty of theatre are that it only exists once. It is a single moment shared between one audience and one cast, nothing about it is truly replicable. ‘St Matthew Passion’ was a performance that demonstrated this in the purest and most beautiful way possible. Stories can be told in an infinite number of ways and Isango Ensemble should be commended for their contribution.
Unfortunately, ‘St Matthew Passion’ performed for one evening only. Keep up to date with the Isango Ensemble at Isango Ensemble Website or alternatively, see the full 2019 Brisbane Festival line-up at Brisbane Festival Website.