Kentridge’s “The Head and the Load” Joburg Theatre 2023

The Head and the Load has arrived 

After 3 long years of postponement due to the Covid upheaval, William Kentridge’s production of The Head and the Load ‘came home” in 2023. After it premiered at the Tate Modern in July 2018, it was performed in New York at Park Avenue Armory, in Germany and in Amsterdam, and late last year in Miami, all to international acclaim. It opened at the Nelson Mandela Theatre in Jozi on 21st April for 14 performances only. In advance, as part of the series of talks: HOW/ Showing the Making at The Centre for the Less Good Idea at Arts on Main in Maboneng, Kentridge, and four key collaborators, spoke about the background to the work and gave insights into how it was made.

In conversation with Kentridge were choreographer and dancer Gregory Maqoma , dancer Thulani Chauke, musician Nhlanhla Mahlangu and drummer Tlale Makhene 

Raw encounters in an intimate space 

I suspect this evening was as impactful and memorable as the production, but for very differing reasons.  The final production, as with all Kentridge’s theatrical works and video installations, is a kaleidoscope of visual images and sound, a multi-sensory overload.  The fragmentary partial view of actors and performers extended out along the specially constructed 50-meter purpose-built stage along the back of the Nelson Mandela Theatre was in stark contrast to the intimacy and immediacy of the scenes acted out during the talk.  In Showing the Making, the audience could focus on small vignette examples performed singly or in pairs. In the reduced simplicity, and with limited visual and auditory input, it offered a raw directness. Plus, William introduced the evening with a brief background and context to the production (as always accessible, cogent yet subtle) before moving on to looking at some of the making process with examples.

Threads and themes 

Kentridge introduced the themes, threads and background to the work by singling out a few ideas which served as springboards for the workshopping of the “Less Good Idea” towards the final production.  Two lengthy workshops were held during which improvisations and experiments were explored in a “safe space for stupidity” which William likened to the space of psychoanalysis. 

The military and the procession 

Commentary on violence and the abuse of power are themes that have long been part of Kentridge’s work (Faustus in Africa 1995 with the Handspring Puppet Company; Ubu and the Truth Commission 1997, (also with Handspring); Oh to Believe in another world 2022) and this has extra resonance given the military association of the commission from the Park Ave Armory in New York, where the work was performed in the Wade Thompson Drill Hall.  The long (some 76-meter) narrow space of the Armory venue also lent itself to the idea of procession, a means of expression that Kentridge has employed in so much of his artwork, from Drawings for Projection series (1989–2003) to his video installations More sweetly Play the Dance 2016.  But it was Triumphs and Laments 2016 performed against the 500-meter-long mural on the banks of the Tiber in Rome, which signaled the challenges of performing in long narrow space. 

World War I and Africa

Kentridge’s adaptation of Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck (which Kentridge sets in World War I), premiered at the Salzburg festival in 2017 and was performed at the NYMet in 2019. After the workshopping for this production, ‘There were so many things not used, … so much left at the edge of the production… many of the items called to be looked at again, to be brought back onto stage.’  These unused images and ideas began the development of the next project: 

Charcoal, red pencil and digital print on paper Exhibited at Kaboom! Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg 2018 Diameter: 147.5 cm.  The Tondo forms a rotating ark of drawings projected onto the backdrop of the production of The Head & the Load.

Attention turned to the subject of the untold story of some 2 million Africans used by the British, French, and Germans during World War I. Some were soldiers but most were porters used to carry military equipment when it could no longer be transported by train, tractor or beasts of burden. At least a million of these men died.  Their role went unrecorded – no monuments, no lists of names, no records. This deliberate erasure was summed up by a Colonial Officer’s pronouncement “Lest their actions merit recognition, their deeds must go unrecorded”.  It is this ignored and expunged history which The Head and the Load aims to surface and acknowledge. And so themes of procession, colonial exploitation, untold stories, suppressed histories and military madness began to coalesce. 

History as collage

But this history is not linear, chronological, ordered; it is not a singular absolute truth, nor a complete overview with a comprehensible narrative. Kentridge asks: “Can one find truth in the fragmented and incomplete? Can one think about history as collage, rather than narrative?”  

Language that gives material form to ideas: The Body 

In turning to the making of the piece, Kentridge referred to a body movement Maqoma made in an early improvisation session. He referred to it (and demonstrated it, rather inadequately, by his own admission), as a “collapsing of the chest”.  Maqoma’s performance of this “collapsing of the chest” seemed to send anguished ripples through his entire body.  This “Spasm of the Body” struck Kentridge as a powerful metaphor and container for the “Spasm of History”: for historical fractures, lacunae, and gaps; for human endeavour and suffering that has deliberately gone unrecorded; for the different realities of the colonizers and the colonized during and after the Scramble for Africa; for the collapse of reason, logic and sense in the mad scenario of the events of the late 19th/early 20th Century; and for the contradictory attitudes around different colonized states’ involvement in the War.  The fissures were evidenced in Nyasaland’s “This is not our war” (recorded in John Chilembwe’s 1914 letter to the Nyasaland Times) to Senegal’s “We too have the right to be heroes” (and “offer a harvest of devotion”).  Many of those who joined up hoped their status would change once the war was over and they would be granted civil rights. Instead, when they returned, they were given a coat and a bicycle. 

But, returning to the “Spasm of the Body” and the privilege of savouring this seemingly small detail “up close and personal’. The final production of The Head and the Load with multiple sounds and visual images: dance and movement, written text, spoken words and song, music, shadow projections, laser cut objects, mechanized sculptures, charcoal-drawn projected backdrops result (intentionally) in a sensory bombardment.  Will this brief “scene” of the “Spasm of the Body” be so searingly etched in memory, (along with the “Running” and “Running and Falling” when it is one of a myriad other images and stimuli being enacted on a 50-meter stage along with some 37 other protagonists?  But this assault on the senses is at the core of the production: “It is about historical incomprehension (and inaudibility and invisiblity)” (Kentridge)  

Focusing at close quarters on one ‘vignette’ is a different experience from the sensory assault of the full production

Learning “the grammar of the projector” (Nhlanhla)

The small space, direct interaction and the demonstration of how the shadow project works to distort figures and create a parallel ‘reality’ in the background, opened the way for greater accessibility and a more internalized understanding of the complexity of “learning the grammar’. And to imagine directing this all on the vast long stage – the mind boggles. Figures close to the projector have larger shadows and those further away are smaller, while there are areas to both sides where actors are still on the stage but not in the light of the projector.   

Those performers closer to the projector are projected in larger scale than those further away. Plus on the sides are dark areas where the performers are still on stage, but their shadows will not be projected.

Language that gives material form to ideas: Text 

Kentridge has long drawn on the absurdist language of Dada sometimes in a playful tone but mostly as a critique of the madness of world events.  He spoke about the role of language in The Head and the Load and how Dadaist poetry in its chaotic freneticism made more sense than the “good logic [which] had produced catastrophe”.  The carving up of Africa by the colonial powers during the Scramble for Africa, formalized at the 1884 Berlin Conference, made no sense. This non-sense was enacted by Nhlanhla and William (standing in for another performer), in a scene of two war generals squabbling over a colonial territory… yelling at each other in incomprehensible gobbledygook.  In other instances, things that are familiar can be made unfamiliar so evoking a sense of madness and frenzy:  

Carrying through the idea as collage, the libretto of  The Head & the Load is largely constructed from texts and phrases from a range of writers and sources, cut-up, interleaved and expanded. Frantz Fanon translated into siSwati; Tristan Tzara in isiZulu; Wilfred Owen in French and dog-barking; the conference of Berlin, which divided up Africa, rendered as sections from Kurt Schwitters’s Ursonate; phrases from a handbook of military drills; Setswana proverbs from Sol Plaatje’s 1920 collection; some lines from Aimé Césaire.  

And written text overlays the charcoal drawing projected on the backdrop. In 2018 Kentridge exhibited at the Goodman Gallery in Johannesburg. Entitled Kaboom! some of the works on show were preparatory ideas for The Head and the Load. 

The pool ahead is not to be trusted Charcoal, pastel and printed text on paper 128 X 152cm drawing from Kaboom! Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg 2018.  Texts include: “The pool ahead is not to be trusted”; “Hunger makes no man wise”; “Darkness gossips about no one”; “A nicely built city never resists destruction”; There was no epiphany’; “The Chilembwe Revolt– 1915.”
The Head and the Load performance with background projection of “The pool ahead is not to be trusted” Image: Courtesy William Kentridge Studio

Language that gives material form to ideas: Music

As musical directors Phillip Miller (Kentridge’s long-time collaborator) and Thuthuka Sibisi use collage as a tool: “We move from a cabaret song by Schoenberg, intercut with percussive slaps on hymn books, to a Viennese waltz by Fritz Kreisler”.  Traditional African songs interweave with music from war-time composers like Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie and Paul Hindemith. 

The Title: The Head and the Load

The title draws on a Ghanaian proverb: ” The Head and the Load are the troubles of the neck”.  In this production Kentridge uses the image to refer directly to the role of the African porters who carried the war material on their shoulders (even a ship which was dismantled and reconstructed). 

In the back left are some of the cut-out objects that the porters carry in their procession across the African landscape with giant background projections. I only took a video of this scene that was enacted for us, but it is too big to include here.

The Load also refers to the burden of history – the exploitation of the Scramble for Africa and its aftermath; as well as to the ongoing psychic burden of the trauma of war, of suppressed histories, distorted narratives and the rupture of cultures and societies. 

The backdrop shown here presents a close-up of a roster of names and numbers and causes of death: malaria, yellow fever, exhaustion, blackwater fever, typhus.
From discussion of the making to the performance itself where “a group of performers stand on stage, their crisply delineated shadows looming like spirits over the roster of death, as they sing a mournful African song” Photo courtesy William Kentridge Studio

The Head and the Load is an hour and thirty minutes long with no interval. It has 3 Acts and 20 scenes each with a title. There is a programme which gives a background to the production.  It opened on 21st April.  This You Tube clip gives a taste of this extraordinary production. 

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