Thursday, 5 July 2018

REVIEW: SS Mendi Dance of the Death Drill at the Nuffield Southampton Theatre

Nuffield City Theatre in Southampton's third production in its main house since opening earlier this year follows up on from its first success, Shadow Factory about the bombing in the Second World War Spitfire factory in Woolston with another local World War story. The SS Mendi was also known as the black Titanic when it sank off the Isle of Wight at 4.57 am on 21 February 2017 with the loss of over 600 lives and yet the story is not as well known as either the Titanic sinking or Spitfire factory bombing. Of course in the context of the time, this was just a few more tragic deaths alongside so many tragic deaths in the WW1 trenches but the story has real poignancy and its exposure of cultural clashes and tension is as relevant today as it was central to the story of the past. 

In commissioning the extraordinarily talented Isango Ensemble from Capetown and under the tight but collaborative direction of Mark Dornford-May, the NST has given the story development to a group of performers who know each other well, many performing together for several years and it is hard to imagine a more appropriate group to bring the story to life. As Zamile Gantana says as he opens the show, sat centre stage on a wooden box, they rehearsed in South Africa close to where the ship's passengers spent their last night on land back on 5th January 1917 and part of their aim in dancing the death drill was to bring peace to those souls who lost their lives when it sank.

The show they have created is a haunting lament that sends chills down your spine as it exposes the class, cultural and racial differences of the time through spoken word, music and dance. Music Director Mandisi Dyantyis and choreographer Lungelo Ngamlana have done an amazing job. The African voices draw their musical styles from the African townships but add a powerful operatic style and parody of the English music of the period. It is a mix that works accompanied by the wonderful sound of the Marimbas with rhythmic drums. There is plenty of humour as well in the Gilbert and Sullivan style song about the SS Mendi and in the use of the British National Anthem, Pack up your troubles, Long way to Tipperary and a sea shanty with mops to contrast with the strong African choral voices and dance.

The 75 minute performance follows the recruitment of a mixture of Africans to dig the trenches for the white soldiers in Flanders and journey up the coast of Africa of six weeks. They were proud warriors drawn from South Africa's ethnic communities including Zulu, Swazi and Xhosa, a total of 802 mainly men and accompanied by 167 other crew and military passengers, yet five years after Titanic there were only 289 lifeboat places. Jack Ellis plays the recruitment officer responsible for discipline on board and while his attitudes are now uncomfortable to hear, they are understandable given the military attitudes of
the time and the interracial tensions of the South Africans. However the attitudes foreshadow the later apartheid system in the country. Equally shocking is the subsequent whitewash of the sinking and loss of life.

This is a powerful emotional story told with great skills and energy by the talented cast but it is the music and dances that create the most stirring moving and memorable moments of the production and make this a show and a story that deserves greater exposure. It runs at Nuffield until 14th July and is worth missing a World Cup game to see.

Review by Nick Wayne

Rating: ★★★★

Seat: Stalls B | Price of Ticket: £17

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