Isidlamlilo (The Fire Eater)

Theatre / Rhodes Box

Based on a range of testimonials shared during Empatheatre research processes, the story weaves together elements of Zulu folklore, Biblical mythology, magical-realist framings of South Africa, as well as humour and pathos, to make for a theatrical experience that speaks to both the country’s haunted past and present day complexities.

Over the course of 80 minutes, Mthombeni, through a frank, comic and captivating storytelling, relays the dizzying and death-defying life story of Zenzile Maseko. Maseko, a sixty-something isiZulu grandmother, rents a cramped room in a Durban women’s hostel, and is haunted by her past working as an IFP assassin (fire-eater) in the build-up to the 1994 elections. When home affairs mistakenly declare her dead, and are unable to reverse the error on their system, Zenzile finds herself cast into the middle of a Kafkaesque nightmare, driven to desperate measures to prove she is still alive, and is made, in the process, to reawaken parts of her identity and past that she has spent a majority of her adult life trying to suppress.

Please note that this show is in a Rhodes University venue and as such you will be required to show your vaccine certificate or a negative test no older than 72 hours or proof of Covid positive status within the last three months.


Produced by: Empatheatre
Directed by: Neil Coppen
Written by: Neil Coppen in collaboration with Mpume Mthombeni
Performed by: Mpume Mthombeni
Designed by: Dylan McGarry and Neil Coppen
Lighting Design by: Tina LeRoux
Sound Design by: Tristan Horton
Set design by Greg King
Additional set dressing Dylan McGarry
Rain SFX Steven Woodroffe
Poster design Dylan McGarry


Isidlamlilo! The Fire Eater



Mpume Mthombeni is an award-winning stage and film actor, theatre-maker, researcher and facilitator who hails from Umlazi, Durban. Mthombeni has taken on multiple roles over the years in theatre, radio, film and television, drawing international acclaim for her performance in Tin Bucket Drum, which she toured to New York in 2012, garnering rave reviews. Some of Mthombeni’s other theatre credits include Animal Farm, Soil & Ash, NewFoundLand, Ulwembu, The Last Country and Lalela uLwandle. Her work with Empatheatre focuses on merging research and performance and she considers the theatre-maker’s role in contemporary South Africa to be that of healer. Mthombeni is widely known and recognised for her roles in popular day-time television series Imbewu and Durban Gen.

Neil Coppen is a renowned and prolific storyteller and theatre-maker hailing from Kwa-Zulu Natal. Coppen has won several major awards for his writing, design and direction work including Standard Bank Ovation Awards, Naledi’s, Fiesta and Kanna Awards, the Standard Bank Young Artist Award for Drama 2011 and the 2019 Olive Schreiner Prize for Drama. He is one of the six South African playwrights to have been granted a staged reading of his work at The Royal Court Theatre.

Some of Coppen’s most acclaimed works taught in schools and universities locally and internationally include Tin Bucket Drum (published by Wits University Press), Tree Boy, Abnormal Loads, Izipopolo, and NewFoundLand (published by Junkets) and his adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm which toured South Africa for over five years. In early 2020, Neil collaborated with Canadian First Nations dance company Red Sky Productions in Toronto on the premiere of a new work titled AF. More recently, Coppen directed an ambitious online performed reading and reimagining of Hamlet, a production he had originally been commissioned by the Fugard Theatre to stage before the pandemic hit. In 2022, Coppen alongside visual artist Vaughn Sadie and in collaboration with a community of Oudtshoorn-based arts practitioners, founded The Karoo Kaarte project (supported by the KKNK). Karoo Kaarte is a large-scale public participative storytelling and theatre project which headlined the 2022 KKNK festival and whose inaugural theatre production Op Hierie Dag has been nominated for 7 Kanna awards.

  • Venue: Rhodes Box
  • City: Makhanda
  • Location: Cnr Prince Alfred Street and Somerset Street, Grahamstown, Makhanda, 6139
  • Ticket Price: R75.00
  • Genre: Theatre
  • Duration: 100mins
  • Ages: 16+
July 01, 2022   16:00 - 17:20
July 01, 2022   20:00 - 21:40
July 02, 2022   16:00 - 17:40
July 02, 2022   20:00 - 21:40
July 03, 2022   14:00 - 15:40