Isango Ensemble’s SS Mendi is Powerful Theatre
As shocking fact is laid upon shocking fact, it becomes hard to judge SS Mendi- Dancing The Drill Of Death as a piece of theatre, such is one’s outrage at how the British behaved towards black people from the Empire a hundred years ago. But Isango Ensemble have created a powerful musical to tell the human story behind the appalling facts .
Directed by Mark Darnford-May, SS Mendi is about the last voyage of a ship that transported black South African men to support British troops against the German army.
They see themselves as warriors going to fight but actually they will be digging trenches because one of the many appalling things we hear is that the black man is not allowed to raise his hand against the white man- even the German enemy.
The ship is sunk in an accident off the English coast and over 600 dead black South Africans become, as far as Britain is concerned, a footnote to the history of world war one. Until now.
The brilliant Isango Ensemble from South Africa bring to life what is actually an uplifting tale of the life of the people sailing to their doom. It’s a great piece of storytelling that could only happen in theatre.
This is physical theatre at its best, relying entirely on the performers. It’s a mixed gender company but it’s all about the acting so women take on male roles. On a bare stage with minimal props, they talk, sing, mime, play music. They tell individual stories with humour and compassion; they celebrate the men’s pride and humanity; they move fluidly together to provide a physical metaphor for their community as well as for the sea and the ultimate tragedy.
There were moments when some of the co-ordinated movement could have been tighter and some of the voices stronger but I don’t want to quibble in such an excellent production.
The terrible patronising racism is there almost from the start when, as the men are recruited, they are given British names to replace their real names. Although the colonial white racism is appalling, SS Mendi does make clear that, there was class and racism among all of humanity as well as a specific British white racism a hundred years ago. The white officer in charge himself faces class prejudice. The black South Africans are prejudiced against each other’s tribes and some initially won’t have anything to do with mixed race person they call a ‘half breed’. So it is more nuanced than a simple attack on British racism.
Despite the horrors, there was humour. I liked the interspersing of traditional British songs into the South African music which was terrific by the way- at times joyous, at others haunting.
Not all the attempts at humour work. Just prior to the sinking, a performer comes on stage with a fog machine. It’s one thing to want us to stand back and understand this is a story being told but that intervention did strike a false note.
I would have liked the play to have been a little longer so that more time could have been spent looking at the lives of these individuals chosen to represent the 600 dead, to give us more chance to connect which would have made the tragic outcome even more poignant.
But it’s a story worth telling and Isango Ensemble use the full power of theatre to tell it. I congratulate Nuffield Theatres Southampton on them to Britain to mount this important production.
SS Mendi: Dancing The Death Drill is performing at NST City until 14 July
Watch the youTube review of SS Mendi: Dancing The Death Drill on the channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-