/* Rate It icons */ /* Emojis */

Summary

5 - 7 Sep 2019

The Playhouse, QPAC

A Nuffield Southampton Theatres and Isango Ensemble Production

Presented by Brisbane Festival, Philip Bacon AM and Queensland Performing Arts Centre

This is the story of ‘The Black Titanic’, the truly startling tale of how disaster gave rise to a life of hope, courage and resilience. Told by one of South Africa’s great music theatre ensembles, SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is based on the book by Fred Khumalo. It’s a powerful and moving music theatre, inspired by the real-life tragic maritime disaster. Individuals from conflicting cultures become united in a final, defiant dance as the ship goes down

Suitable for audiences 12+ years

Buy Tickets

Reviews

7 Sep 2019

Wonderful song, dance and strong dialogue makes a powerful impact on the audience

Once seated, I noted the stark stage with no orchestra or props and the performers standing and waiting to perform.

I may not have understood the different African languages, tribal references or the historical circumstance but I did understand the emotional impact from the moment the performance began.

The script assumed that the Audience knew nothing of the SS Mendi tragedy and the complex story required insight into the impact of British Rule in South Africa.

The performers conveyed their story via dialogue,…

Once seated, I noted the stark stage with no orchestra or props and the performers standing and waiting to perform.

I may not have understood the different African languages, tribal references or the historical circumstance but I did understand the emotional impact from the moment the performance began.

The script assumed that the Audience knew nothing of the SS Mendi tragedy and the complex story required insight into the impact of British Rule in South Africa.

The performers conveyed their story via dialogue, dance, percussion instruments, songs and sheer physicality.

It was a tale of desperation, exile, family farewells, tribal conflicts, poverty, loss, fear and death.

I loved the rhythm of the music, the high calibre of the beautiful professional singing.

I loved the simplicity of how this complex story was told.

Buckets of water used for ocean sounds, a tall bamboo was the ship’s mast, a rope was the ship’s balustrade and the sound of the whips so very loud.

The dominance of British Rule was conveyed in the dialogue between the white masters and the black conscripts.

The tribal warrior names meant nothing to the white masters and English names were allocated to the conscripts upon “signing up” for the voyage.

Their fierce pride and strong tribal identities were replaced only by fear, cruelty and death.

The performers chanted all the derogatory racist terms that the white masters used against and this truly emphasised the ignorance and cruelty behind those words.

Very uncomfortable to hear.

The emotions ranged from joy to rage, from anger to fear and the death drill scene was so hauntingly sad that I had goosebumps on my skin.

The sheer power of the story combined with how it was told was so awe-inspiring.

I knew nothing about this tragedy beforehand and now I cannot forget it.

Read more
Marita Hanlon
veteran
7 Sep 2019

A story on the fringes long deserving of its time on centre stage

From the very first scene the ethereal, haunting harmonies wash over you, transporting you aboard the SS Mendi for its voyage in 1917.

Musically, the skill of the cast cannot be denied.

Whether it is passionate singing and joyful dancing, to subtle sound effects and purposefully placed props, the Isango Ensemble is polished.

The talented performers embody their roles, immersing themselves in their characters and purpose: to remind us all of those who were left behind.

Transitions between storytelling and interchanging characters flow from…

From the very first scene the ethereal, haunting harmonies wash over you, transporting you aboard the SS Mendi for its voyage in 1917.

Musically, the skill of the cast cannot be denied.

Whether it is passionate singing and joyful dancing, to subtle sound effects and purposefully placed props, the Isango Ensemble is polished.

The talented performers embody their roles, immersing themselves in their characters and purpose: to remind us all of those who were left behind.

Transitions between storytelling and interchanging characters flow from scene to scene, eventually breaking down the fourth wall and including the audience in moments of clarification and comedy.

In my honest opinion, SS Mendi was an enjoyable ride through a turbulent sea of the past.

I was in awe of some of the vocal talent and I appreciated the minimalist, rustic set design that was coupled with many weird and wonderful props and man-made musical instruments.

The sardonic humour used to highlight some of the more serious issues and the plight of those Mendi crew members prompted me to think on our present climate and reflect on the reach and success of similar themes and content.

In contrast, there is an Australian documentary on race playing to cinemas around the country with seemingly empty seats.

Before the boat sets sail forever, I wholeheartedly believe that there should be more productions such as SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill.

In the end, I wanted more.

More singing, dancing, props, instruments and more knowledge on this part of history.

Maybe I will get to see another wonderful Isango Ensemble production in the future.

Read more
Sam Dudley
virgin
7 Sep 2019

A staggeringly beautiful piece, inspired by a little-known World War One tragedy

In February 1917, the SS Mendi, carrying more than 800 souls to the Western Front, was struck by another ship and sank into the ocean.
Just 11 miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight, 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…

In February 1917, the SS Mendi, carrying more than 800 souls to the Western Front, was struck by another ship and sank into the ocean.
Just 11 miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight, 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 homogenous 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 - now go see it, and let the Isango Ensemble tell theirs.

Read more
Jodie Sloan
veteran
6 Sep 2019

An overlooked perspective and a powerful lament for the victims of one of the greatest maritime disasters of WWI.

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…

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.

Read more
Alex Komarowski
veteran
6 Sep 2019

Soweto meets Gilbert and Sullivan in this expertly directed and poignant contemporary musical theatre piece

“THIS is theatre”, I thought to myself, as I joined in the standing ovation following what I believe to have been one of the most uplifting evenings of theatre I have had in a long while.

Bravo to Brisbane Festival, for programming SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, a bold and well-structured contemporary music theatre masterpiece by Nuffield Southampton Theatre and Isango Ensemble (ZAF).

What unfolds before you in Dancing the Death Drill is a true and tragic tale of imperialism and…

“THIS is theatre”, I thought to myself, as I joined in the standing ovation following what I believe to have been one of the most uplifting evenings of theatre I have had in a long while.

Bravo to Brisbane Festival, for programming SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, a bold and well-structured contemporary music theatre masterpiece by Nuffield Southampton Theatre and Isango Ensemble (ZAF).

What unfolds before you in Dancing the Death Drill is a true and tragic tale of imperialism and racism, to make you laugh, cry and question, “Why is this story not more well-known?”

A simply lit, raked stage with wooden floorboards and corrugated iron walls seamlessly transformed into the docks of Cape Town, a bus, the ship’s deck and a courtroom, through the exceptionally clever use of props such as cloth, ropes, crates, sticks, a bamboo pole and paper umbrellas.

I love this kind of theatre, driven by ingenious direction, creative ideas and imagination, more than budget. Brilliantly, the music consisted only of percussion and the human voice.

One moment you’re listening to an uproariously full and joyful chorus of African harmonies and rhythms complete with chants, whistles and yips.

The next, you’re practically transported to a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta!

In their talents, technique and versatility in both music-making and movement, the Isango Ensemble showed immense commitment on stage.

It’s obvious to all that this is a unique and expertly trained group of and passionate storytellers.

It was also a sheer joy to hear the use of African languages such as Xhosa (known for its distinct click sound) together with English. More productions should use multilingualism as bravely as this.

Overall, SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill a memorable night at the theatre suited for well-seasoned theatre lovers and ideal for newbies. 5 stars!

Read more
Liana Cantarutti
veteran
6 Sep 2019

Facts, friendship and heinous war crimes

When you think of musicals, you would probably think of glamour and a huge stage production.

Across the board, that would be correct – but not in this case.

Sometimes you are taken on a journey, sometimes you experience an emotional roller coaster and sometimes you are left standing, hanging out for more.

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is all these, plus more.

There are heavy ideas and a soundtrack to leave you humming for days.

It makes you contemplate your own experience and…

When you think of musicals, you would probably think of glamour and a huge stage production.

Across the board, that would be correct – but not in this case.

Sometimes you are taken on a journey, sometimes you experience an emotional roller coaster and sometimes you are left standing, hanging out for more.

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is all these, plus more.

There are heavy ideas and a soundtrack to leave you humming for days.

It makes you contemplate your own experience and life.

The overarching themes included going to war, camaraderie, coming of age to suicide and death – the troupe brings you along each step of the way.

Despite a clear spoken transition between scenes, ingenious techniques are successfully used instead.

Minimalist use of props and song creates the space, throwing you into the depths of the emotions and fear.

A highlight of the show is the personification of the ship and the amazing talented individuals on the stage.

Not only are the troupe extremely good at what they do, but they also deliver harder to fathom facts of SS Mendi and the great loss that ensued.

Read more
Simone Healy
veteran
6 Sep 2019

A well-paced production with highly enjoyable music and brilliant story telling.

Wow, what a great performance! The cast does a great job of telling their story.

I have to admit, I was skeptical going into this. I really knew nothing about the story or the cast, heck I haven't even been to QPAC for a show ever. But nearly everything about this evening was just great and met or exceeded my expectations.

As I wandered around looking for the Playhouse, the staff were surprisingly helpful and I found it with no issues. They…

Wow, what a great performance! The cast does a great job of telling their story.

I have to admit, I was skeptical going into this. I really knew nothing about the story or the cast, heck I haven't even been to QPAC for a show ever. But nearly everything about this evening was just great and met or exceeded my expectations.

As I wandered around looking for the Playhouse, the staff were surprisingly helpful and I found it with no issues. They were very polite and friendly which got this experience off to a great start. No fuss getting the tickets. Finding our seats was easy as well. The seat itself though was a little lacking on the leg room, kind of like flying coach but at least no one was reclining in your face during the performance and it was only 90 minutes so not terrible, but just couldn't stretch the legs much. (I am, after all 188cm tall, to give you perspective...)

As the play commenced, I was immediatly drawn into it and my interest never wavered. The story progressed through at a good pace, just long enough to gain interest and empathy for the characters, but nothing lingered. It was very well paced.

I was completely amazed at the soundscapes and the cast's ability to use the very simple set and props to immerse the audience. Their blending of musical cultures is very impressive, demonstrating a wide range of vocal capability and athleticism through their movements on stage.

And the story itself is interesting. It is definitely a production that I recommend people go see. It will surprise you.

Read more
Dave Thomas
virgin
6 Sep 2019

Powerful… but preachy.

The story of the SS Mendi - South Africa's so-called 'Black Titanic' - is undeniably powerful.
The performers of Isango Ensemble are undeniably talented.

Brisbane Festival securing a company of this calibre is an undeniable coup.

Yet, for all it had going for it, I simply couldn't connect to 'SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill'.

In my honest opinion, it was a patchy production - there were parts that resonated and evoked a mighty response and others that simply fell flat and failed to…

The story of the SS Mendi - South Africa's so-called 'Black Titanic' - is undeniably powerful.
The performers of Isango Ensemble are undeniably talented.

Brisbane Festival securing a company of this calibre is an undeniable coup.

Yet, for all it had going for it, I simply couldn't connect to 'SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill'.

In my honest opinion, it was a patchy production - there were parts that resonated and evoked a mighty response and others that simply fell flat and failed to fire.

My feelings were best encapsulated near the end when a performer addressed the audience, forcefully declaring: "This story needs to be told. Our story needs to be told."

This preaching led me to feel as though there was very little room for my own inferences and conclusions; that when I started to feel swept away by the action, I was soon dragged back to the classroom be schooled and lectured.

These gripes aside, I couldn't argue with the talent on stage.

There is light among the shade, humour among the tragedy, and hope among the grim reality.

Voices lifted in glorious harmony, bodies contorted to become the set and props, and basic items were repurposed to produce the most whimsical and atmospheric percussive sounds.

Read more
Belinda Seeney
veteran
5 Sep 2019

The brilliance of this complex performance is in the simplicity of presentation.

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is a very powerful and moving performance interspersed with light-hearted moments that boost the spirit. It is the story of the final voyage of the SS Mendi from South Africa to Britain and its African crew. The performance depicts the conflicts and struggles between cultures not only between Britain and Africa but also between the various cultures within Africa. Unity and acceptance of cultural differences become important themes between the members of volunteer African…

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is a very powerful and moving performance interspersed with light-hearted moments that boost the spirit. It is the story of the final voyage of the SS Mendi from South Africa to Britain and its African crew. The performance depicts the conflicts and struggles between cultures not only between Britain and Africa but also between the various cultures within Africa. Unity and acceptance of cultural differences become important themes between the members of volunteer African crew so that they are better able to endure the harsh conditions on board.

The performance is complex in the merging of story telling, acting, singing, dancing and sound effects which are all achieved solely by the performers on stage. The stage design, costuming and props add to the atmosphere of life on board the ship. The power and richness of the African music and dance is absolutely wonderful.

The performers are powerful having a strong stage presence and utilising excellent choreography against a realistic but very minimal backdrop.

The brilliance of this complex performance is in the simplicity of presentation which emits powerful emotion.

I would most certainly recommend it to anyone and would be very keen to see it again.

Read more
Lynda Devitt
virgin
5 Sep 2019

We know the horror before the show has even really begun.

If the purpose of art is to challenge ideology, then SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill delivers. This powerful piece of musical theatre uses a tiny cast of 14 to tell the story of a tragedy that took 616 mainly black lives to the bottom of a watery grave near the Isle of White in 1915. The genius of the production is we are told of the tragedy at the very beginning. We know the horror before the show has…

If the purpose of art is to challenge ideology, then SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill delivers. This powerful piece of musical theatre uses a tiny cast of 14 to tell the story of a tragedy that took 616 mainly black lives to the bottom of a watery grave near the Isle of White in 1915. The genius of the production is we are told of the tragedy at the very beginning. We know the horror before the show has even really begun.

And yet, despite the tragic subject matter, the story unfolds with an abundance of good humour, vibrant singing, energetic dancing, clapping and whistling. We hear why the characters volunteered to travel from Cape Town to the battlefields of Flanders. We listen to their individual stories, their lust for adventure, their need for money, their genuine desire to fight alongside their British allies. We are treated to smatterings of Shakespeare, nods to the HMAS Pinafore, and a stirring rendition of Danny Boy, set against a backdrop of the glorious melodies of Zulu singing, drumming and clapping.

Staging, lighting, costumes and set design are deliberately pared down, allowing the multi talented ensemble to tell their stories in an honest, intimate way. They address the audience directly at times using humour to disarm and inform.

But here’s the rub. Despite being proud Zulu warriors, they are being transported to dig trenches for white soldiers. It is 1915 and racist ideology permeates their every move. Their vessel, the SS Mendi is struck by another British vessel in thick fog and that leads to the unfolding horror. If there is a poster child for Black Lives Matter, this is it. Go see it, hear the stories of the volunteers and ask yourself, why this chapter wasn’t taught in our history lessons at school.

Read more
Jo Evans
veteran
5 Sep 2019

A creative account of the tragic story of SS Mendi’s last voyage.

The cast creatively and energetically told the story of the last voyage of SS Mendi through voice, dance and drama culminating in the tragic demise of the men aboard.

A deeply moving account of their final moments.

Kerry Scott
veteran
5 Sep 2019

This story must be heard and show seen.

Seldom do I rise so quickly at the end of the show to give a standing ovation.

My expectations of SS Mendi were that it would be a tragic true story about the ship that sunk killing 616 volunteers in World War One.

These men, who saw themselves as warriors but were in fact destined to dig trenches for the British.

They were given shovels not guns.

They never made it to their destination.

How could any theatre company do this story and the men…

Seldom do I rise so quickly at the end of the show to give a standing ovation.

My expectations of SS Mendi were that it would be a tragic true story about the ship that sunk killing 616 volunteers in World War One.

These men, who saw themselves as warriors but were in fact destined to dig trenches for the British.

They were given shovels not guns.

They never made it to their destination.

How could any theatre company do this story and the men who died justice?

SS Mendi does so artistically through soulful song, comical and lovable characters, brilliant acting and a powerful message.

Moreover, the show highlights the discrimination and injustice these men suffered.

The white captain – played by a variety of the African performers, demonstrates the privilege and racism of the time. However, the wise reverend – a wise and voice of reason, reminds us to, ‘Not hate the man, but to hate the system that made him’.

As questioned in the show, ‘What is democracy in an apartheid state?’.

The injustices and prejudices of the past that still plague our society today are centre stage in this show.

I left the theatre feeling entertained, moved and educated about a story that more people should know about.

This is the ‘black Titanic’.

The audience laughed and cried.

The actors carried the audience with them and positioned us to appreciate this untold historical event.

As stated in the show, ‘this is our lamentation to bring the souls of those who died peace’.
I am grateful to have witnessed this tragic requiem softened only by the beautiful harmony of the African voices.

I give it five stars and would definitely recommend it.

Read more
Jessica Boyle
virgin