Theatre Review: SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is a staggeringly beautiful piece, inspired by a little-known World War One tragedy

Good morning readers – just a quick reminder that I’m on holidays until late October! The good news is, I’ve got plenty scheduled between now and then, so happy reading!

In February 1917, just 11 miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight, the SS Mendi, carrying more than 800 souls to the Western Front, was struck by another ship and sank into the ocean. 646 men, mostly black and mostly volunteers, drowned.

The little-known tragedy was recently explored in Fred Khumalo‘s excellent Dancing the Death Drill, and it’s this novel that serves as inspiration for this outstanding piece of choral music and theatre, from Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble.

Inventive, powerful, and at times cut through with a rather dark sense of humour, SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is a staggeringly brilliant piece, led by a talented and engaging cast

Speaking as part of a predominantly white audience, it’s pointedly uncomfortable to watch at times, particularly as individual tribal songs morph into a homogeneous God Save The King, and as Henry W. Stump, master of the Darro, the ship that hit the doomed troopship, paints over the words SS Mendi in a quite literal white-washing of history.

But that’s exactly the point – the crew are dancing their death drill; they’re telling their story. All we have to do is watch and listen.

Racism, tribal factions, injustice, and the ever-looming shadow of the British Empire are part and parcel of this stunning lament to a historical tragedy that has for too long been denied a place alongside the Titanics and Lusitanias of history.

A fine example of the wonderful international work that Brisbane Festival can bring to our city, the audience’s enthusiastic standing ovation told its own story – see it, and let the Isango Ensemble tell theirs.

Review originally published by IMHO on 07/09/19
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