Chills to the bone whilst lifting the heart - an outstanding performance.
The sinking of the Titanic, which set sail from Southampton in 1912, is one of the most well-known and tragic maritime disasters; however less well known is the sinking of the SS Mendi. Dubbed the ‘Black Titanic’, the SS Mendi was carrying 823 South African men bound for the front lines to support the Allied troops during the First World War. In the heavy pre-dawn fog the SS Mendi was hit by merchant ship the Darro which was found to have been travelling “at a dangerously high speed in thick fog.” Not stopping to help the Darro sailed on, leaving three-quarters of the crew of the SS Mendi to drown.
In the final part of 14-18 NOW (a programme of arts commemorating the centenary of the First World War), the story of the SS Mendi has now been brought to the stage by the Cape Town-based Isango Ensemble. Directed by Mark Dornford-May, SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill premiers at Nuffield Southampton Theatres (NST) City with original and intensely powerful live music and genuine and compelling performances. Adapted from the novel by Fred Khumalo, the hidden history of the black South African men who enlisted voluntarily or who were forced to, is revealed.
For any piece of art to stand the test of time there must be something truly and uniquely memorable about it. With the NST City’s opening production Shadow Factory it was the fantastic use of lighting and visual effects. With SS Mendi it is without a doubt the incredible live sound. Using marimbas, drums, their own bodies, and a whole range of other props the cast create all the music and sound effects live on stage. South African dustbins are used (UK dustbins just aren’t resilient enough apparently), water is poured, stirred, and splashed when at sea, and ‘night’ and ‘day’ sounds are created vocally by the company. Beyond the realism of the sound effects, the music throughout takes us on an emotional journey. Madisi Dyantyis, Music Director, has done an outstanding job, combining mournful and celebratory singing to bring goosebumps to the skin. SS Mendi brings together the African heritage and British military tradition which faced each crew member, in a powerful and sometimes discordant fusion. Even the choreography sees the fusion of the cultures with a combination of militaristic marching and African tribal ritual. In one clever scene you see the gradual conversion as the company’s traditional dance and song morphs slowly into a rigid British National anthem. The audience are warned of loud noises before the show however it doesn’t quite indicate the volume (and pitch) that will be reached so as a warning, if you are sensitive to noise then be aware that though outstanding this is often very loud and high-pitched.
The highly talented cast bring not only their skill and artistic nature but also their passion and genuine emotion. In the final song several of the cast has tears in their eyes (as did many of the audience). Every character is introduced and played with such emotion that their message, heritage, and story is felt deeply by the audience and their loss is the more tragic. The final scene saw a standing ovation and I have not yet seen a show more deserving of one. It brings to life an educationally important story, poignantly and humorously – in perfect balance. Though its clear throughout that the story being told has an agenda, there are a few charged messages about race and class which at points felt a little pushed. However, when a story of this magnitude has been whitewashed from the history books, its first telling requires more purpose and force.
Though the story of the 823 men who boarded the SS Mendi, and the 616 who perished, may have gone largely unknown and forgotten for 100 years; SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill will ensure they are never forgotten again.
Watch the Trailer for SS Mendi Dancing the Death Drill below, it is on show at NST City until 14th July – get tickets here.