Words can fail in terms of the content of a show like SIBYL and also for any critical response. This show raises its own multiform bar and follows no established theatrical rules. It’s conflation of highly accomplished contemporary African musical compositions, and live singing and piano (Kyle Shepherd) ,with off beat movement/dance and bountiful video (Zana Marovic editor – animated charcoal drawing and graphics, and prints) and audio, delights the senses and is as entertaining as it is meaningful and innovative in style (Dance and vocals by the company).

Words in the show – captions on digital cards – titillate in the instagram age but can first seem to disappoint in a sophisticated art work until one recounts the populist tropes of Dada visual arts. The obsessive disorders of twentieth century absurdism now come from the contemporary South African state, where stoic resignation is celebrated in a repeated generative ritual. The dreams post apartheid are lost, but life goes on and there is pleasure and meaning in survival liberated from past mythologies. 

Words of course are always only part of a multiform expression. There is no prescription how and when verbal language should occur (unlike many other varieties of script based theatre) and in SIBYL short text is jokingly layered against the exquisite chant-like music of Nhlanhla Mahlangu and Kyle Shepherd, accompanied by spiraling hoop movement and the skirt dancing (costumes Greta Goiris) of the main classical character Sibyl. 

Dance has always been multiform in expression and helps provide a clue as to how diverse the arrangement of music and movement can be. Movement can play with beat and mood and be otherwise in its own domain. The music includes lyrics from phrases collected by Kentridge translated into African languages, and their effect is planned without the clarity of full understanding.

In ancient lore Sibyl was the priestess who accepted questions about the future. However the wind churned up the leaves on which she wrote her answers – supplicants never knew whether they received the right answer to their question. In the search for certainty chaos rules. In the show SIBYL is performed with a large frock silhouetted on a projection screen by front lighting. Words are reduced to social media utterances, coming in random order. There is a clever blending of modern media and ancient myth. 

The show become a unrelenting defiance of despair as much as ideals. It stops short of transcendence or celebration but is in the name of stoic even childlike expression. We are all still here, all still living. It is profoundly honest in its complexity. 

As to be expected the show is performed in an  African tradition but in more than  a traditional manner – it demonstrates how traces of tribal multiform expression can echo in non traditional forms today. The multi art and artist mix evokes a true collectivism that resonates with our ancient being. 

SIBYL might seem to deny coherence but in a deeper trope, in the lament and attentive affirmation, the elements share a common and honest purpose – to remain alive to life and the future as uncertain as both may be. 

By way of addendum, it was a pleasant surprise to note that the Opera Theatre was full (and there were several other performances within the House) for what at first might seem to be an avant garde show. Kentridge’s reputation is well established, but even this cannot ensure the resoundingly full loud and prolonged standing ovation by all. I have never experienced such applause. Sydney really came of age.  


SIBYL by William Kentridge

Produced by The Office performing arts + film


William Kentridge Studio

Teatro dell’Opera di Rome

Music by Nhlanhla Mahangu and Kyle  Shepherd

Production photography by David Boon.


Review by Geoffrey Sykes