War has been central to the story of our nation.
From an early age, we are regaled with stories of Gallipoli that tell of our brave ANZACs’ mateship and camaraderie just as much as they do the extent and pointlessness of their sacrifice.
There is something familiar then for us Aussies in SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill.
What perhaps is most striking about the story of the Mendi is the ever-present and irrepressible colonial racism that compelled hundreds of men to sail across the world and die for the Empire’s cause.
Despite the inevitably heavy subject matter, Mendi is filled with moments of whimsy and comedy.
Dramatic shifts in tone, executed impressively by the Isango Ensemble, captivated the audience, guiding them through the emotional peaks and troughs of leaving home and setting off for ‘The Great War’.
This vivid emotional landscape is reflected in an immense and eclectic musical repertoire.
From Gilbert & Sullivan style theatrical numbers and wartime classics, to powerful choral laments, song and dance immerses the audience in the world of the Mendi and in the lives of its doomed crew.
The Isango Ensemble brilliantly interprets these numbers, combining British motifs with South African stylings to reflect the colonial forces steering the ship to disaster.
What is most impactful about Mendi is its catharsis.
We are told as the lights go down that “This is our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace”.
In sharing and celebrating their lives, the Isango Ensemble earns the Mendi’s crew – long overlooked by history – their overdue place in the annals of history and in the memories of a deeply moved audience.