Writer and Director: Michael Williams
Music: Peter Louis van Dijk and Mike Campbell
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Vibrant and pulsating with the throb and beat of South Africa, Mandela is not only a unique piece of musical theatre but a history lesson. Told in three distinct acts, it is the story of a man whose strong beliefs and tenacity carried him from tribal obscurity to political prominence and a place in history as the man who became a national hero when through his lifelong endeavours, and at great personal sacrifice, he gained freedom and equality for all the people of South Africa, irrespective of colour or creed. Michael Williams’ play is a marathon event that should not be missed, for it is unique and deserves credit as such. That said, this latest production, while considerably improved from when the company last brought it to the Wales Millennium Centre in 2012, falls curiously flat in some respects.
There can be no arguing with the fact that Nelson Mandela was an extraordinary man. Even in prison, for as a political prisoner he was made to endure the privations of the infamous Robben Island for 27 years, he fought for the freedom of others: the freedom of equal citizenship, ultimately granted with the ratification of the Freedom Charter. This did not happen without sacrifice in his private life, incorporated in the musical.
Three distinct acts chronicle the different stages of Mandela’s colourful life, and he is portrayed by three different actors – as a young man growing up in the Transkei as a member of the Xhosa tribe, then during the years leading up to the establishment of the ANC, and finally as the grey-haired statesman worshipped by his fellow countrymen as the man who has achieved the impossible.
The last one of these, played on opening night in Cardiff by Aubrey Lodewyk, opens the show with a short prologue in explanation of what is to come and also closes it, while in the important middle years of Mandela’s eventful life the rich baritone Peace R. Nzirawa, is heard to advantage centre stage for much of the production. The boyish Thato Machona is well cast as the young Mandela. Tribal dances et all for the African village scenes, with the beat of the bongo drums and a chap in a headdress and animal skin throwing himself across the stage, shakin’ the bones for good measure. Yes – we get the point.
Music plays an important part in atmospheric emphasis: in Act One, we hear the tribal initiation songs and the hypnotic beat of the drums, in Act Two, which takes places in a club in Sophiatown, there is lively jazz and in the final act the poignancy of songs sung by Mandela such as Do You Remember Our Freedom? On an intellectual scale – full marks. Nevertheless, there is so much going on that it is hard to take in, and perhaps the question remains whether this might have worked better as a straight play rather than a musical. With the focus being inevitably on the ups and downs of Mandela’s political career, the poignancy of his personal situation, even in the scene where he receives a letter while he is in prison telling him of the deaths of his mother and young son, did not move us.
The grand finale is a scene where Mandela makes a balcony appearance, looking down on his people, cheering and dancing in the streets as they express their thanks to the man whose determination, coupled with compassion and understanding of their problems had drawn them to him, and ultimately achieved the impossible.
Runs until 27 August 2016 | Image: Silvia Lelli