If you take a look at the 255-page festival programme, you will discover that the entire section of the children’s theatre on the Fringe programme takes up a measly five pages, and is comprised of nine shows. I repeat, nine shows. And if you flip back to the Main programme, you will find Family Theatre takes up one page, and showcases only one show.
That show is The Little Prince, a dramatic African adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s bestselling classic novel of the same name. It is the world’s most translated book outside of religious texts, and is considered to be a masterpiece of children’s storytelling and literature. The production in question is presented by the Market Theatre Laboratory in Johannesburg, in collaboration with the French Institute of South Africa, and is directed by Mwenya Kabwe and Clara Vaughan.
I bought my ticket, sat down, and then I was treated to one of the best festival shows I have ever seen.
I will not mince my words. We gave it a standing ovation when it was finished, and I am quite sure that Standard Bank will too. Kabwe and Vaughan have taken this piece of surreal, imaginative literature, and have not only successfully translated it into a complete visual medium, but also kept the imagination and raw wonder of the subject matter intact.
At first glance, The Little Prince is a coming-of-age story with the main character, the lone resident of asteroid B-612, exploring the relationship between the perceived ignorance of childhood, and the more mundane, “consequential” matters of adulthood. This story is told from the perspective of the narrator who, upon their plane crashing in the Sahara desert, meets the young prince, who proceeds to recount his previous adventures and all the strange characters he has come across.
From that point, we are treated to a magical telling lifted straight from the book, and spiced up with the flavour of African storytelling, making use of shadow puppetry and gymnastics, and a clever and diverse use of language. Intertwined with snippets of isiXhosa and references to the African continent and its people, we are treated to fantastic lines such as “This flower is very complicated,” and “I order you to ask me a question!” The beauty of the book and the performance, in regards to this sort of dialogue, it that it is played completely straight. It transcends the barriers of age and results in an introspection of one’s actions and the implication of loneliness, something that the source material is highly regarded as being.
The character of The Little Prince is not cemented in a single performance. Without giving the game away, the Prince is performed via composition and is not anchored to a single defining trait. What makes this brilliant is that it elevates the character from not only being representative of the production’s interpretation, but also a representation of everyone that can relate to him i.e. children (and some adults). All the performers do an excellent job of portraying their respective characters, all giving off vast amounts of the energy and excitement that the younger members of the audience will definitely respond to. Case in point, during my attended performance, a young child of maybe four or five could be heard throughout the auditorium continually asking questions about what was happening on stage. That is the ideal response to this show. To think, to question, to ponder. At the same time, do not criticize or scoff at the absurdity that is being an adult. The purpose is not to vilify the existence, but rather draw it in comparison to that of a child’s.
The technical qualities of the show are simple, yet very effective. Making use of minimal props that fully signify their inherent meaning, the Prince’s scarf, the wing of the narrator’s airplane, a giant red tarpaulin which acts as everything from a rose to a podium. The lighting and music are primarily utilised for the purpose of atmosphere. Given the fluid and abstract nature of the material, there is a potential for an overbearing on the senses, but this production full well knows what sort of aesthetic is required to keep the audience focused on what matters: the story, the people, and the message.
I loved The Little Prince, and I am confident that everyone will too. And on an important note, I hope that it propels children’s theatre back to a state of relevance, and being taken seriously. This kind of theatre is continuously overlooked owing to perceived restraints due to the target audience. There are certain things you cannot get away with, especially with the young demographic, whether it be concerning material, or how that material is interpreted. This stigma needs to be challenged. The youth deserve good theatre. We need more shows like The Little Prince.
The Little Prince is showing at the Victoria Theatre at 12:00pm on 1 July 2018. Be sure not to miss out on this gem of children’s theatre.
By Sam Spiller