BWW Review: SS MENDI: DANCING THE DEATH DRILL, Nuffield Southampton Theatres
The tale of a doomed journey is a familiar one for many of us; we are all aware of the tragedy of the Titanic, which set sail from Southampton, never to reach its destination.
Few, however, have heard of the SS Mendi - another ship fated to end its journey just short of those same Southampton docks and taking hundreds of lives with it in 1917, amidst The Great War.
This little-known story has now been transformed into a unique production in the final part of 14-18 NOW, a programme of arts commemorating the First World War upon its centenary. Now premiering at Nuffield Southampton Theatres' City venue, SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill resurrects those lost at sea in a feast of powerful theatre, music and song.
Directed by Mark Dornford-May and adapted from the novel by Fred Khumalo, we are introduced to the hidden history of the black South African men who enlisted voluntarily - or were forced - to give up their lives and embark on a mission to support the troops fighting on the front line. Not as soldiers, but as labourers, ready to build roads and dig trenches.
The story of these men is told and performed by the talented and critically acclaimed Cape Town-based Isango Ensemble; and who better to tell their tale? The cast brings passion and loss of the affected communities to life with original live music, as well as beautiful theatre.
Using marimbas, drums, their own bodies and even dustbins and water, the Ensemble ensures that sound plays an integral part in this tale, and makes the message even stronger. It is the mournful and celebratory singing that takes us on a truly emotional journey. Mandisi Dyantyis, Music Director, has done an astounding job.
Poignant moments are brought to a head with these melodies and harmonies, which simultaneously bring a chill to the bone while lifting the heart. This is the sound of the communities each crew member was torn from; of uncertainty, fear, courage, and ancestry; of cultures clashing within the crew and beyond.
SS Mendi is a powerful fusion of African heritage and British military tradition. It is discordant and somewhat unnerving to hear the African crew singing familiar British wartime songs in between their own tribal or cultural music; a juxtaposition many of us are not familiar with, thanks to the underrepresentation of stories like this in history books. This further highlights the crew's displacement, and the way they were forced into the situation we find them in.
When one young crew member, given the name Danny, is comforted with a rendition of "Danny Boy", it seems both out of place and oddly fitting. It's a very clever representation of the coming together, conflict and discord of two nations; even the choreography sees marching and national anthems entwined with African dance and tribal ritual.
This is also a skilled and poignant demonstration of how these men never reached their destination; much like the to-ing and fro-ing between musical styles, they too are forever in limbo between cultures, lost somewhere off the coast, struggling with identity, displacement and purpose. They are not in one place, nor in the other.
The staging is simple yet effective. Despite the disastrous events played out before us, it's a careful and considered performance, soft and respectful. Even death is treated with great care, and the sinking of the ship is no less powerful for its subtle portrayal. It's a testament to the teams behind this show.
This story is made even more compelling by the cast. Bringing sheer skill and passion from South Africa themselves, they are a force of artistic nature and ensure that the message, heritage, and emotion behind the story are well and truly felt by every member of the audience. Every character is brought to life, and we connect with each of them so much so that their loss is felt even more keenly.
This show is fully deserving of the standing ovation that it received upon the final scene. It is like nothing I have seen before; an educational journey which brings laughter amid tears of sadness. There is the perfect balance of true poignancy and humour.
Although it's clear we're being told a story with purpose and agenda, bringing justice for those lost, giving a voice to the voiceless, and offering charged messages about race and class, not once are we patronised or lectured. This is history, taking place before our eyes: from the background of the crew a the very start, right through to the Reverend's powerful speech in the ship's final moments, imploring the crew to "die like brothers".
The stories of the 823 South African men who boarded the SS Mendi, and the 600 who perished, are finally being told through a rich and emotional production which ensures that their legacy and sacrifice did not go down with the ship.
These men and their fate may have gone largely forgotten for almost 100 years, but SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill will ensure that they will now be unforgettable.
Photo credit: The Other Richard