Royal Opera House (venue)
23 April 2019 (released)
23 April 2019
Isango Ensemble’s SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill at the Royal Opera House, is one of the most heartfelt collective performances I have ever seen. It is also an incredibly important lesson in storytelling.
The story of the British ship, the SS Mendi, is a story I didn't know. These untold parts of history, the moments not deemed important enough, or which expose the tellers in a not-so favourable light, are the ones that will be revealed to us as information becomes more readily available.
In February 1917 a British ship carrying over 800 South African volunteers was headed to Le Havre, France, to dig trenches, build roads and unload cargoes for the war effort (being black, they were denied the right to hold guns or to be soldiers). An enormous cargo ship, the SS Darro, did not see the Mendi in the fog just outside the Isle of Wight, and crashed into her. The Mendi went down within twenty-five minutes, and the captain of the Darro didn’t wait to see the outcome. Instead he chose to sail away, knowing that the men were dying, and knowing their skin colour. In total, 618 men died. As the ship went down, a translator on board, Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, is said to have given a powerful speech to the doomed men. It is this speech that has inspired generations of South Africans and become part of their folklore and legend.
The soul of this story comes from its captivating music and dance, as well as in its language - there is harmonious beauty in the numerous native African languages spoken throughout. Musical direction from Mandisi Dyantyis and Paulina Malefane and choreography from Lungelo Ngamlana is sublime. The actors are open and generous and pour themselves into their characters, so that each individual onstage grows and is elevated higher to represent the many souls from the ship. Zamile Gantana’s strong and calm presence from the very beginning sets the scene, telling us the story simply. The dynamic between the charismatic Thandolwethu Mzembe and the sincere, powerful Thobile Dyasi is excellent. Nolubabalo Mdayi is emotional and heartfelt as the embodiment of the ship, and Nontsusa Louw is rooted and engaging. However every single performer deserves a mention, and so too does Director Mark Darnford-May, for rather than creating any kind of star system, each cast member is as equal as the next, and so each memory feels honourably served, each character’s culture allowed to shine.
There is a poignant moment towards the end of the play when we hear what happened to the captain of the Darro, the ship that crashed into the Mendi. The captain himself tells us onstage that his punishment for sailing away and allowing over 600 men to die was, ‘a removal of his license…. For 12 months’. The crew of the Mendi look out to us. Neither angry nor sad, they just look. They do not need to say or show anything. This piece of direction was poignant and powerful, and crushing.
Mark Darnford-May's directorial choices seem to be led entirely by heart and a drive to tell a meaningful story to honour these men. The heart of this performance is the guiding light that beams out onto the audience, and we feel that this story and these people matter. The combination of the sound design - all created by the cast members on stage, the music, dance, and the storytelling, brought about a very special theatrical moment and an important one to see.
And to ask Mark Dornford-May’s question again, why has ‘the enormous contribution of non-white volunteers during World War I been airbrushed out of the history later taught in schools’?