Reviews NationalNewcastle Published 2 August 2021

Review: as british as a watermelon at Newcastle Fringe (online)

29th July, then touring

‘The realm of memory’: Naomi Obeng reviews mandla rae’s poetic performance film about their memories of seeking asylum.

Naomi Obeng
mandla rae in as british as a watermelon. Set design, Michael Hankin; costume, John Krausa; director of photography, Benjamin Lidell.

mandla rae in as british as a watermelon. Set design, Michael Hankin; costume, John Krausa; director of photography, Benjamin Lidell.

A cheeky sideways glance to the camera tells us that mandla rae isn’t here to give everything away. Not for us. “I’m a liar”, they tell us knowingly. And yet, the solo show that unfolds is sharp, stylish and tenderly imbued with truthfulness.

as british as a watermelon is a poetic, autobiographical reflection of mandla rae’s life – their journey as an asylum seeker in Britain and their relationships – with family and friends, with their queerness and with their own sense of self. But the show isn’t concerned with the linear confessional storytelling that a solo piece can often entail.

It builds itself precariously, with delicate details of a life. A soft game of jenga with luminous, lucid words balanced atop ambiguous, abstract movement, sound and touch. It never tells us where it is leading us, and never guarantees that the narrative we gather won’t just topple with the next few spoken lines. The straightforward obliqueness of the show’s storytelling can’t help but charm you. It’s knowing. And defiant.

The precarity is fitting. We’re in the realm of memory. Memories on top of other memories, and those buried underneath. mandla speaks without exposition. Of the origins of scars. The day they left Zimbabwe. Their grandmother’s biting words “The devil is you.” We are led to think about what we remember, and what dark landscapes we avoid in our memories.

The squat silhouettes of several watermelons make for a strange sculpture garden, populating the emptiness of the filming studio. There’s a tender mix of fragility and strength within the white fluorescent lights that frame the space. Watermelons are stabbed and cut, stroked and held like children away from danger. They act as a beautiful proxy for proximity for a solo performer whose audience lives behind the lens – proximity to people, to intangible memory. The sound of hand on watermelon brushes your ears. The soft thunk of an object full of water – and maybe full of hopes and secrets too.

The show doesn’t feel like an answer to anyone’s questions except mandla’s own. mandla lies on a table, head resting on a watermelon, foot rolling another watermelon, microphone amplifying more pieces of a story. mandla’s recurring close up to camera, which speaks of knowing more than will ever be said.

That is our contract. Nothing is laboured. No section is pushed beyond the space it needs. The half hour is crisp, refreshing and full. Constructed out of the honesty it takes to tell one’s own story, not really for others’ eyes, but for the gaze of your own.

A watermelon is hacked at with a large knife. Then mandla’s hands attempt to puzzle it back into a whole. I could watch that for a long time. A sense of triumph. A sense of things irreparably sliding apart. A sense of hands being too full too often for too long. A sense of persistence. The small moments where everything feels sorted and held tight, before another piece slips, splits and falls.

as british as a watermelon was screened via Newcastle Fringe Festival on 29th July. It runs online via Summerhall from 6th-29th August, and as part of Horizon showcase, 26th-28th August. More info here.

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Naomi Obeng

Naomi Obeng is an East Midlands based writer and arts journalist.

Review: as british as a watermelon at Newcastle Fringe (online) Show Info


Directed by Graham Clayton-Chance

Written by mandla rae

Cast includes mandla rae

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