SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill at the Royal Opera House
Through the creative use of various percussive instruments, including hands and feet that clapped and stomped in time with the drums, dustbins, plastic bottles, various marimbas, and vocals, Isango Ensemble presents SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill. Recounting the voyage of SS Mendi, which carried young men from South Africa to Britain to dig trenches, cook food, labour on the ship and on land for the soldiers of WWI, this interdisciplinary show weaves together the two countries’ complicated history intertwined with apartheid, exploitation and imperialism. Audience members are advised that “this is our lament for the souls of the dead, giving them rest”. A restlessness through myriad bodies lost to the vast sea, which can be felt from the onset with the sonic sensibility that grabs the ears and the hearts for a performance that is heard and felt so poignantly that what one sees transports the body into a violent past whose narrative survived not in history but in the memories of trauma.
As the young black men (and women playing male characters) sign up to board the ship in the hope of opportunities to make money, indigenous beliefs, customs and relationships are to be left behind while they sing comically that “we can be white and tight, left, right and march”. Quickly thereafter, however, they are confronted by the reality that demands “the right to expect you natives to volunteer”.
Under Mark Dornford-May’s direction, this production is made up of exceptional performances from Nolubabalo Mdayi, Thobile Dyasi and Thandolwethu Mzembe, while Dyasi and Zoleka Mpotsha’s vocals can be felt as if a cold chill at the back of the neck.
The joint forces of co-music directors Mandisi Dyantyis and Paulina Malefane with Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography make this a piece that is truly one of a kind – a visually spectacular, sonically praise-worthy and emotionally profound performance that carries the theatre into a distant time and space. Be prepared to be blown away from the very first drumbeat as the heart skips a beat in time for yet another magical show from the sensational Isango Ensemble.
Photo: The Other Richard
SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is at the Royal Opera House from 18th April until 4th May 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.