Set Design Is Not Child’s Play

Set Designs From Across The Cradle of Creativity.

Ekhaya, by Magnet Theatre

What has been incredible at the Cradle of Creativity Festival is the complexity of set designs and props on display, especially considering some Productions have travelled many thousands of miles to perform in Cape Town.

The Bookbinder, for instance, hails from New Zealand. Described as a combination of “shadowplay, paper art, puppetry, and music [weaved] into an original dark fairytale”, it follows the adventures of an apprentice bookbinder on his way through mysterious and magical lands. A one-man performance, it is produced by Trick of the Light Theatre, written and performed by Ralph McCubbin Howell, and directed by Hannah Smith.

Whilst it is an excellent performance in many ways, what stood out to me most was McCubbin Howell and Smith’s papercraft and other design elements. The opening set, a relatively simple desk in a book shop, is so much more than it initially seems. An enormous book forms the centrepiece – within its pages are cut-outs and puppets that are reminiscent of Paper Theatre traditions. Gobos and clever manipulation of the lamp mean that shadows are used extensively.

“We wanted to make something that was intimate and immediate, engaging and surprising – kind of like reading a book. We wanted to tell a story about the way stories are constructed, and we wanted to spin a good yarn.”

Video Credit: Trick of the Light Theatre.

Ekhaya (trans. Home) was similar in that its set also offered so much more than it might have seemed on first glance. Produced by Magnet Theatre and directed by Koleka Putuma (assisted by Jennie Reznek), the design was by Francesco Nassimbeni.

Nassimbeni’s design saw the show open with a very simple set of cardboard boxes. The plain white and denim costumes gave away no clues as to what was about to unfold. The children started watching the performance somewhat confused. However, with the cast removing the plain cardboard facade, colourful painted boxes and blankets were revealed which received an audible gasp of “Wooooooooow” from the audience. “It’s amazing”, one of the children said out loud, whilst their friends clapped in amazement and others stood up to get a closer look at the set transformed from monochrome to rainbow.


Ekhaya explores the relationship children have towards being at home and there was an opportunity for the young audience to contribute their responses to the Play – at the end, they were invited up to draw on the stage floor – many drawing pictures of houses and families.

The synchronised and often comedic physicality induced much laughter and cheering. Whilst there was very little spoken text, music played a key role – a combination of beatboxing, clapping and singing. The songs were very catchy, with children following along with the words and/or hand actions – so much so that at times the Performance evolved into call and response mode.

Video Credit: Magnet Theatre. Note that for the Cradle of Creativity performances, the cast consisted of: Jason Jacobs, Babalwa Makwetu, Nolufefe Ntshuntshe and Luvo Tamba.

Koleka Putuma also contributed another production to the Cradle of Creativity, producing, directing and designing Mbuzeni (trans. Ask Her). The Production “tells the story of four little girl orphans, their sisterhood, and their fixation with burials.”

Whilst the Production had a relatively simple set, the blocking and lighting were expertly precise in order to evoke the different spaces to which the orphans went. The block colour dresses worn by the girls, as well as their umbrellas, were simple but effective props in establishing each unique character.

Exploring themes of traditions and folklore, as well as friendship and death, it is a credit to the Production that I was not the only audience member who, despite not speaking isiXhosa, was able to follow a large proportion of what was happening onstage. The comedy transcended language, as did the moments of sorrow.

Video Credit: Koleka Putuma.