Completely unfamiliar with cantatas, I was uncertain what to expect. I feared the intensity of the medium as well as subject matter of Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair would be rather daunting, but to my delight I found it a piece that, although intense, was an absolute wonder to watch.
The performance comprises the delusions of grandeur as well as the paranoia of Themba, a bright architecture graduate who – in search of creating a better world – drifts into insanity. What is particularly notable about the performance is its exploration of the various tangents from mental illness, showcasing not only the conflict within Themba himself, but how it affects others more indirectly. The experience of his family and loved ones as well the conflicting opinions of psychiatrists, neuroscientists, traditional healers and priests are all examined in the piece. Themba’s story thus acts as a reflection of the universality of psychosis and the issues associated therewith.
Although his character is based on specialist psychiatrist Sean Baumann’s various encounters in the wards of Valkenberg Hospital, and the libretto incorporates actual words and phrases spoken by his patients, Themba is an everyman figure. In this way the perception of schizophrenia is not far-removed and distant, but authentic, close and harrowing.
Dissimilar to its more classical connotation, this conceptualization of a cantata acts as a carefully curated amalgam of art forms – combining libretto, video, art and illustration with an assortment of solos, chorus, and orchestra. Directed by Lara Foot, with music by Galina Juritz with Dizu Plaatjies and conducted by Chad Hendricks, the elements seamlessly coalesce as a deeply stirring whole. Monwabisi Lindi’s powerful tenor delivers an impactful expression of Themba’s experiences, beautifully juxtaposed with the pain in the alto voices of the mother, Fikile Mthetwa, and the lover, Nolubabalo Babalwa Mdayi. However, each choral and orchestral member contributes in the creation of musical diversity, their astounding talent enhancing the power of the piece as a whole.
The artwork by Fiona Moodie paired with Koeka Stander’s video design completes the harmony of the artistic aspects of the performance. Calming ocean waves and bucolic mountain scenes are complemented by equally soothing instrumentals, and contrast with disturbing imagery and urgent, loud and jarring musical accompaniments. This brings the audience in line with the patient, arousing a relation with the altered mental states of psychosis, drawing them through the intense moments of lucidity and disjointedness echoed by the drifts between harmony and noise. An inner turmoil and unrest stirs and culminates in crescendos like psychotic breaks in moments of pure, raw and shaking emotion. It is in this that the performance aids the authenticity of the portrayal of schizophrenia – establishing somewhat of an understanding to an often incomprehensible illness. The harmony between aspects in the performance is carefully curated to portray the complexities of the experience of psychosis, the multi-faceted world expertly executed with each song delving into the “ultimately unknowable worlds” of the mentally ill. The powerful imagery is only enhanced by the prowess of its musical counterpart, which combine to create an entirely emotionally dense experience.
As a whole, Sean Baumann’s Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair is enthrallingly beautiful, a unique and artistically exquisite portrayal of mental illness, neither glamorized nor falsified, with beauty resonating in the raw truth of it all. The performance abandons escapism and engages on a profound and intimate level. I left feeling introspective and somewhat exhausted from the emotional rollercoaster both onstage and within myself, yet completely mesmerized.
Madness: Songs of Hope and Despair took place at the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town on 4 December 2016.