by Stuart Round
To put my cards on the table, I’m not a fan of musicals. Everyone bursting into song all the time disrupts my suspension of disbelief – at least where I live, this never happens. And a musical about a political struggle? No one in their right mind would even attempt to write such a thing, surely?
But no, South African writers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky have apparently spent the last 7 years doing just that, and their time, thought and dedication has somehow managed to distil almost 40 years of history, with its detailed, nuanced political struggle into a two-hour show that convinces, moves, excites and enchants, all at the same time and in equal measure.
Michael Luwoye, previously from the American musical Hamilton, portrays a believable Nelson Mandela from his early life through to when he leaves prison in 1990. To be critical, and this is a review of sorts so that is surely expected, he could be a little taller. However, the stature of his performance was not lacking, allowing the audience to fully embrace him.
We witness Mandela’s sacrifice; not being able to be a proper father to his children as an underground activist, and again but much worse in prison where he is even denied the opportunity to say goodbye to his son Thembi after he is killed in a car crash. Perhaps more unusually, and to the credit of the writers, we also see his militancy on full display. Establishment historians and commentators love to categorise Mandela as a man of peace, which is not untrue, but is only half the story. We see him here as the founder member of MK, the armed wing of the ANC, and hear his refusal to renounce the armed struggle even as freedom is dangled as a carrot before him towards the end of his time in prison, insisting instead that the apartheid state should renounce the violence through which apartheid is enforced.
The runaway star of the show, at least in my opinion, is Scottish actress Danielle Fiamanya in the role of Winnie Mandela. She leads us on a journey from devoted wife and mother, through her arrest and detention as a political prisoner, abused and damaged by the brutality of her confinement, to the militant seeking revenge and retribution against those who would inform or collaborate with the enemy. “Fight fire with fire!” she sings, to the rapturous applause of an audience that perhaps doesn’t fully appreciate the horror that is implied. Yet, somehow, she pulls this off with immense sympathy to her character, and in doing so gives us an insight into the struggles of Winnie Mandela that we had perhaps hitherto not understood so clearly. Her sensitive portrayal of this complex character, in a musical no less, is simply astounding.
Adding to the authenticity of the show is our own Nic Vani in the role of Oliver Tambo. I’m not sure I should claim him this way, but anyone who’s attended any number of Chamber events should be very familiar with Nic’s outstanding vocals, which were on full display tonight (he also performed in a small show called The Lion King). No story about Mandela is complete without the story of OR, who played such a significant but often under-sung (no pun intended) role both in the struggle and in Mandela’s rise to international fame, acclaim and status as an icon of the 20th century. Nic does this role ample justice, portraying the building of the international movement that did so much to isolate and impugn the apartheid regime.
This is a show full of energy, which from the first moment immerses you completely. The music, contributed to by Bongi Duma and performed live from the rear of the theatre, captures you in a wave of emotion and takes you on a remarkable journey before delivering a crescendo truly worthy of the story it portrays. Gregory Maqoma’s choreography is equally engaging, with traces of Gumboots, Toyi Toyi and Indlamu high kicks, blended to build the energy and tension and march the story onwards.
There is more to say, and many more outstanding performances worthy of mention, but let me not give too much away because if you are in any way connected to or interested in South Africa, you should get yourself along to the Young Vic to see this show.
Seriously, just book a ticket now, you won’t be disappointed!