A stark white light outlines a small, square room …
A table stands centre stage, its surface cluttered with screwdrivers, knives and a mallet – tools for the innocent purpose of DIY or the malicious intent of torture? Watermelons are scattered across the stage. And then Mandla Rae enters, knife in hand – it’s giving Red from Us.
as british as a watermelon is Mandla Rae’s debut show for the Edinburgh International Festival – a self-assured debut announcing the arrival of a unique artistic voice. Indeed, the show itself can be understood to narrate the arrival of this artistic voice: like Audre Lorde’s biomythography Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Mandla uses the genre of autofiction to dissect and re-assemble identity. And watermelons are the selected object through which Mandla metaphorically represents this process.
Admittedly, I was, at first, confused. As Mandla repeatedly stabbed, cracked and scooped out the flesh of watermelons, I enjoyed the sweet scent emanating into the theatre, and was drawn in by the palpable sense of threat derived from Mandla indiscriminately torturing watermelons. However, I was confused by what it all meant – what was the metaphor that I wasn’t quite grasping?
And then, halfway through the show, Mandla announced, “I killed Brigitte.” Brigitte was the birth name given to Mandla – as Mandla laughingly points out, “how colonised do you have to be to give birth to a child in Zimbabwe and call it Brigitte?” For me, this killing of Brigitte was the key: dissecting the watermelons, wringing them dry – surely this was a metaphor for the destruction of Brigitte. A destruction necessary to enable the birthing of Mandla – a name which “means power”, a name which Mandla “gave […] to myself.”
Of course, the beauty of metaphor is that meaning can be multi-layered. The meaning of the watermelons was shifting – one moment seeming to represent familial warmth, the next a painful scrub against the skin. Mandla’s interactions with the watermelon were always shifting and unpredictable, and so perfectly represented Mandla’s shifting identity, shifting memories, and shifting relationship with these memories.
Altogether, I think as british as a watermelon is a stunning example of queer storytelling, in which the idea of a conclusive linear narrative is complicated into a tapestry of memories connected by their emotional charge; in which the idea of a singular objective truth is scattered into a spectrum of truths, so that the audience is invited to navigate and create their own meaningful path through the performance. If you’re queer, if you’re a migrant, if you’ve sought asylum, if you’re Zimbabwean, different elements of the performance will amplify themselves to you. And, even if you’re none of the above, the performance is visually mesmerising – with Michael Hankin’s minimalist set design and the bright red of the watermelons in all their various states providing a visual feast.
as british as a watermelon is a unique and exciting work, and I look forward to seeing what Mandla Rae next conjures up.
as british as a watermelon played at Edinburgh International Festival from Tuesday 23rd-Friday 26th August. Find out more here.