African Adaptation of The Little Prince Creatively Engages Young Audiences

The Little Prince Stage Adaptation by guest writer Kgomotso Moncho – Maripane

Picture by Ettione Ferreira Cue Media


©Ettione Ferreira-CueMedia_IFAS_Market_TheLittlePrince_16
The Little Prince with Khanyisile Ngwabe in the title role 

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s classic story, The Little Prince is written in such vivid imagery and magical surrealism that it lends itself to the playful theatrics of the stage. But the unconventional text may also be a challenge: Because the book already does a lot of the work with its powerful, provocative images, what else can performance do? What can live bodies add to that?

The Market Theatre Laboratory’s new company, Kwasha, headed by Clara Vaughan who co-directs the stage adaptation of The Little Prince with theatre practitioner and academic, Mwenya Kabwe, employs a physical language to the storytelling.

To prepare for the production, the company did circus training with a circus company called Art of Synergy, working specifically with acrobatics, tumbling, lifting, balancing and counter balancing.

“With the idea of magic being so deeply within the story, with a sense of other worldliness and a suspension of adult rules, the circus feels like a really appropriate form. With the theme of flight also being so strong in the story – flying and crashing, travelling through space – it felt always like the qualities of circus, both in its sense of the unexpected and its sense of magic and of defying gravity, really fit with the themes within the book. It was also very important to make the movement of the play as beautiful and poetic as the language in the book,” says Vaughan.

The play achieves this in its moments of beauty where the movement poetically articulates Saint-Exupery’s moral and philosophical ideas which lean more towards the value of life rather than its meaning. However, in some places, the physicality in the show could be more cohesive for the magic of the book to shine through.

The Little Prince is a European text set in the Sahara desert, whose universal themes resonate worldwide. It is the most translated text outside of religious books, with 300 translations including English, Zulu, Afrikaans and Xhosa.

During the early days of rehearsal for this production, co-director, Kabwe questioned how African languages were used in the show. The importance of this showed how careful thought went into giving this adaptation an African context, but without overthinking it.

“The African adaption of anything is a contentious question to grapple with. There are easy surface ways to do that. I feel like we’re trying to ask other questions about what it means to be staging a European text of this nature here. And how just by working with it, it can be localized. In a way, not taking an overt approach to African adaptation, but letting the work, as we discover what it is, what the ideas are that we’re dealing with speak for themselves. Just the fact that it’s this company, and it’s us and we’re here, already feels like an African adaptation,” Kabwe said.

It is by being authentic to its mechanisms and allowing the individual sensibilities of the cast to come together that this production excels. Its African-ness then comes through inherently.  It’s in the subtle music and the organic flow of the languages.

The open and rustic staging speaks to the bareness of the Sahara. It is also evocative of plays like Mncedisi Shabangu’s Thirteen and Prince Lamla’s Coal Yard whose imaginative exploitation of a minimalist stage are innovative. This feeds into the playfulness of the show that stays with you together with its strong messages. The Little Prince directly confronts the conflict between adult and child relationships and the execution of this production engages the perceived notions of what it means to create for young audiences in this country.

For Vaughan, this extends into her own ideas on creating.

“There are ideas that I really care about in terms of creativity and making – the ways that the world instructs what is good creating – which resonates with ways of theatre making. The ways that people lose their desire to make, or their playfulness around making – losing that internal pleasure that children have. That matters to me. It’s something I have been interested in. As an adult, the story around grown up expectations and expectations of being a grown up, really resonate with my internal tensions about what you choose to take on,” she says.

The Little Prince finishes its nationwide tour in Johannesburg, which started at the National Arts Festival and went to Bloemfontein, Sasolburg and Durban. It runs at the Market Theatre Laboratory until November 25.