The Linbury Theatre is really making its mark this year, and these performances by the stunning Isango Ensemble are not only the ideal works to be staged in this intimate setting, but they help to provide a glimpse of the contrasting musical and theatrical experiences which the Royal Opera House should be all about. In the main house, that epitome of ‘grand’ opera, glitzy, expensive and traditional – Verdi’s La forza del Destino – and in the smaller Linbury, a far-from-traditional (in the European sense) and modestly staged and priced glimpse of an historic disaster which will have been unknown to most of the audience.
The SS Mendi was a troop ship commandeered by the British in the first World War, in order to serve the vast numbers of troops in the trenches; it sank in February 1917, in UK waters not far from the Isle of Wight, with the loss of 618 men, most of them South African. There were a couple of hundred survivors from the 969 men who sailed from Cape Town, but the bodies of most of the 618 who died, were never found. Hauntingly, the ship itself remains today, at the bottom of the sea.
Isango is a true ensemble group, with all the members participating equally in music-making and acting, and everything they do is carried out with absolute commitment and searing intensity. The story told is not just that of the lost men of the SS Mendi, but that of the treatment of, and attitude to, South Africans during the Great War, which in many ways anticipated Apartheid, as David Olusonga writes in his fascinating introduction.
The narrative shows us how the men were deceived into thinking that they would be warriors, and the effect upon them when they realized that they were to be servants. Their pride and strength are superbly brought out by the company, especially in the performances of Mandisi Dyantys as Wauchope Dyobha, the minister who famously told the doomed men to ‘die like brothers,’ and Ayanda Tikholo and Thobile Dyasi as the members of differing groups who come to accept each other.
The SS Mendi carried men from many of South Africa’s ethnic groups including Swazi, Pondo, Zulu, Xhosa and Mfengu, and the story shows us both the cultural differences with which they had to come to terms in order to live amicably on the ship, but the brotherhood which came from recognizing their common humanity. Jack Ellis is entirely convincing as the white commanding officer who sees the men as animals fit only to perform menial tasks.
Mark Dornford-May, the artistic director of the ensemble, has worked with its members since 2000, and his commitment shows throughout the piece. Mandisi Dyantys and Paulina Malefane’s musical direction shows sensitivity in both the large numbers and the quiet exchanges.
Musically, it’s a rousing yet often very touching show, with some fine singing from Nolubabalo Mdayi and Zoleka Mpotsha in two of the women’s roles, although the entire ensemble gives its heart and soul to the melodies, whether channelling HMS Pinafore or intoning the death dirge of those who were left on the sea bed. The Marimbas, drums and other instruments provided both delicate and exciting sounds, easily reverberating around this acoustically splendid auditorium.
In fact, the sound is at times a little too overwhelming, so if you go – and you should – it’s best to aim for seats behind, say, Row G in the stalls, or perhaps higher up. Unlike the next production in the main house – another tale of the sea and of prejudice in Britten’s Billy Budd – this is not almost sold out, so try to catch one of the remaining performances of this story of the greatest maritime disaster to happen within British coastal waters.