tue 15/10/2019

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, Isango Ensemble, Linbury Theatre - evocative and essential lyric theatre | reviews, news & interviews

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, Isango Ensemble, Linbury Theatre - evocative and essential lyric theatre

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, Isango Ensemble, Linbury Theatre - evocative and essential lyric theatre

Compelling fantasia about black South Africans drowned in a World War One disaster

Ayanda Tikolo, Nolubabalo Myadi personifying SS Mendi, Masakane Sotayisi and Thobile DyasiThe Other Richard

While Bach's and Handel's Passions have been driving thousands to contemplate suffering, mortality and grace, this elegy for black lives lost over a century ago also chimes movingly with pre-Easter offerings. First seen in Southampton last year as a commission by 14-18-NOW marking the centenary of the First World War, it relives through song, dance and word the fate of the 618 men of the South African Native Labour Corps who drowned in the English channel when their ship, the SS Mendi, collided with a much larger vessel in thick fog.

The very fact that few of us will not even have heard the ship's name before is reason enough to bring it to our collective consciousness. Vitally, though, it's the symphonic shape of the South Afrian Isango Ensemble's narrative which transforms the memorial into a true work of art. Unlike their other show in rep at the Linbury, A Man of Good Hope, this beginsnot with a feast of sound but with a single figure, looking direct around and up at the audience, as he gives us the bare facts about the volunteers who discovered that they were going not to fight but to dig trenches and cook for their imperial "betters", and the reason for remembrance. Then some of the young men who lost their lives (also played by the women of the company) and one who survived give their names and their reasons for enlisting as a background thrum of choral voices and the marimbas at the sides of the stage rises in a crescendo to a shattering climax - the equivalent of the opening choruses in the Bach Passions. Scene from SS MendiThe contrasts are masterly, valuing silence as much as vibrant song and dance. There are startling transformations of "Pack Up Your Troubles," "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "Danny Boy", even a shot at G&S in HMS Pinafore mode. The operatic trained voices of the company add solos, duets and leads in ensembles; though not all the original material by composer Mandisi Dyantyis - co-music director along with co-founder Paulina Malefane (Artistic Director is Mark Dornford-May) - is top-notch, it's delivered with skill and conviction.

There is no one story until we reach the tragic collision, only vignettes of imperial pre-apartheid, reflected in the character played by Jack Ellis, and of how men from different tribes - Swazi, Zulu, Pondo, Xhosa, Mfengu - get along, or not. A man born of a black father and a white mother is excoriated; an uncircumcised boy persecuted by his tribal chief, to the disgust of the Zulus on board, meets a tragic fate. Scene from SS MendiThough there are three deaths along the way, the telling of the tragic and appalling incident has to be the climax. It's stunningly well done, with the soul of the ship - Nolubabalo Mdayi, wonderful singer and performer (pictured above with Thobile Dyasi and Thandolwethu Mzemba) - dissolving in front of our eyes. The inquest is crisply imaginative, too, before a final choreographed riot of defiance. All this with no amplification, the drums and marimbas played superbly by members of the company, sound effects like the lapping of water and the thrumming of the ship's engine handled by two consummate members of the company, a handful of stage props wielded from time to time on a bare, high-raked stage. The Royal Opera have done well to book this just before it launches its own drama of injustice at sea, Britten's Billy Budd; I hope both casts get to see each other's shows.This is the very essence of theatre, relying on the bodies and voices of the actors, with the dimensions of music and dance done at the highest level. Go, learn and be moved.

The symphonic shape of the Isango Ensemble's narrative transforms memorial into true work of art

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Average: 4 (1 vote)

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