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Review: SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill/A Man of Good Hope, at Linbury Theatre, Royal Opera House

25 April, 2019 — By Leo Garib

Cast of SS Mendi Dancing The Death Drill. Photo: The Other Richard

IT’S not easy to picture the Royal Opera House as home to politically radical productions. But this great stage for the world’s best divas has found house room for one of Africa’s most dynamic opera and theatre groups.

South Africa’s Isango Ensemble, a top company with performers from some of its toughest townships, breathe new life into the smart downstairs Linbury Theatre with two African operas, co-produced by the Young Vic, Royal Opera House and theatres in New York and Luxembourg. They punch harder than anything elsewhere in London, let alone Covent Garden – a vision of what opera could, and should be.

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is a play-cum-opera that tells the true story of a First World War troop ship that sank with the loss of 646 African recruits. Among them were children and men of pensionable age. All signed on out of desperation or press-ganged. British colonial laws had already appropriated African land for white settlers, leaving many on the brink of starvation.

None had any idea what was in store for them when they reached France. They would have joined the thousands of other empire troops given the most dangerous and demeaning jobs, refused guns and armed only with shovels.

But the SS Mendi never even reached England. It sank after being rammed by a steamship in thick fog off the Isle of Wight. The few lifeboats were taken by the white British officers and the captain of the SS Darro ship that holed them, let them drown because they were black. A few bodies eventually washed up on the Isle of Wight, where they are still buried. The Darro’s captain had his licence suspended for 20 months.

Unknown in Britain, the story is not forgotten in Africa and the play is way of honouring the drowned, the cast explain. The Darro’s captain is fingered but so is racist, imperial Britain. A tirade by the white major as he finally stalks offstage brings us momentarily back to Brexit Britain. Word for word, it’s the kind of foul-mouthed rant heard in pubs, supermarkets and high streets these days.

In the finale, the ghosts of the dead soldiers rise up to stamp and chant a powerful South African liberation song.

The acting is from the heart and of the highest quality. So too is the singing, with African songs and mocking takes on British songs of the day expertly woven into the play by music directors Mandisi Dyantyis and Paulina Malefane, and choreographer Lungelo Ngamlana.

The star of their other production, A Man of Good Hope, is undoubtedly young teenager Siphosethu Hintsho, one of three playing a child refugee through the ages. Orphaned by a Western-backed war in Somalia, he traverses Africa, never making it to America but finding himself along the way in an epic, surprisingly light-hearted, theatrical opera. After wandering as a child, saving a dying woman, becoming a street smart entrepreneur, losing a wife and kid of his own, he finally defies social stigma to make a new family with an outcast widow and her child.

In both productions, the tenors and sopranos, with African street percussion folded in, feel right at home in the Royal Opera House. The instruments, the props – including cast-off door frames, boxes, car tyres and bits of old rope – and the political references, situate them both as cutting-edge African.

At a time when Britain is caught on the horns of its Brexit dilemma and convulses over the refugee crisis, they are a sharp reminder that human worth is not measured in skin colour, and now it’s time to confront racism.

Until May 4
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