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Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater

Presented by The Market Theatre in association with Empatheatre & the National Arts Festival.

Isidlamlilo/The Fire Eater is an electrifying new one-woman show brought to life by acclaimed actor Mpume Mthombeni and theatre-maker Neil Coppen through their company Empatheatre. The work premiered at the 2022 National Arts Festival where it was met with rave reviews and standing ovations with many heralding it as a contemporary South African theater classic.

Coppen and Mthombeni’s play is set in a downtown womens’ hostel in Durban, where we first meet sixty-something Zenzile Maseko (Mpume Mthombeni), a grandmother partially disabled and declared dead by the Home Affairs’ decrepit system. Zenzile, we soon discover, operated as one of the IFP’s most feared assassins (nicknamed Impundulu/The lightning bird) in the build-up to the 1994 South African elections.

Zenzile’s dizzying, devastating and often hilarious recollections propel the audience back and forth through time, traversing the shifting landscapes of KwaZulu-Natal and while charting critical events in the province’s post-1994 trajectory through to its present day floods and insurrections. While the story offers an insightful look at the eddying cycles of violence and revenge that play out across generations, it is most of all a story about redemption, regeneration and reinvention.

Zenzile’s story is inspired by the lives of real women living in a Durban hostel. These women were part of an oral history project on migration, gender and inclusion run by the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology. This oral history research formed the foundation of an Empatheatre production that produced powerful pieces of theatrical storytelling that were shared far beyond the confines of research publications.


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Mpume Mthombeni sets the stage ablaze in a breathtaking tour-de-force, shifting seamlessly between the feared assassin Impundulu and the reborn Gogo longing to return to the house she’s building in her childhood village, iPharadise. It is a performance that touches on what it means to live with, and through, political violence, the transition to democracy, the brutality of inequality, health epidemics like HIV/AIDS, patriarchy, and the apathetic bureaucracy of government departments.

The creative team have woven in elements of Zulu folklore, biblical mythology, magical-realist framings to make for an unforgettable theatrical experience that speaks to both the country’s haunted past and present-day complexities.

The production will have its Johannesburg premiere at the Market Theatre (Mannie Manim) from the 21 July to 6 August 2023 before it embarks on a month long European tour.

Isidlamlilo was made possible by the The National Art’s Festival (NAF) and later funding from the NAC PESP fund, with additional support and thanks to the Drama department and the UFC (Urban Futures Centre) at Durban University of Technology.

Running time: 100 minutes without interval.


Age: 14 + Language: English with some Zulu.

Featuring Mpume Mthombeni as Zenzile Maseko

Directed by Neil Coppen

Written by Neil Coppen in collaboration with Mpume Mthombeni

Lighting design by Tina Le Roux

Sound design by Tristan Horton

Set Design by Greg King

Additional Set dressing Dylan McGarry, Neil Coppen and Wendy Henstock.

Production Manager Tina Le Roux

Rain SFX by Steven Woodroffe

Poster Design by Dylan McGarry

Stills photography by Val Adamson

Season:                                               Thursday 20 July  – Sunday 6 August 2023  

Venue:                                                 The Mannie Manim Theatre 

To make block bookings and discounts please contact Anthony Ezeoke 011 832 1641ext 203/ 083 246 4950

For further information, interviews and images, contact:

Acting Brand and Communications Manager: Lusanda Zokufa 072 367 7867 or


Empatheatre was founded by Neil Coppen, Mpume Mthombeni and Dylan McGarry in 2014. The company and methodology has been heralded for its unique approach which sees the creative team forging creative responses to complex social concerns while uniting a range of stakeholders including policy-makers, citizens, community based performers, storytellers, artists, musicians, activists, human-rights lawyers and academics. Empatheatre has been responsible for launching several ground-breaking Research-based theatre projects over the last decade in South Africa including Soil & Ash (focusing on rural communities facing pressure from coal-mining companies), Ulwembu (street-level Drug addiction and harm reduction advocacy), The Last Country (female migration stories), Boxes (homelessness and Urban land justice inequalities in the city of Cape Town) and Lalela ulwandle (an international project supporting sustainable transformative governance of our oceans). The company’s work has toured internationally to Egypt, Rome, New York and Geneva. Empatheatre was recently nominated as The Daily Maverick’s 2022 artists of the year and awarded the Bertha Artivism Award for their theater and social-justice work as well as the 2023 Fleur Du Cap award for innovation in South African Theatre.