If the preview night performance of SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is anything to go by, the 2019 Brisbane Festival is going to be very special. But you have to get in quick, as many of the shows have short runs. SS Mendi closes on Saturday night; so book your ticket now, and then read on to discover why.

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is an unsettling tale of a major accident at sea, which happened less than five years after the sinking of the RMS Titanic. In January 1917, 646 people died in the English Channel, following a collision between two ships. Drawing on Fred Khumalo’s novel, the cast of fourteen tell this ‘hidden’ story of the 823 men who were selected for the voyage as a lament for the loss of the 646 souls. And we can all question whether the relative lack of interest in this story has been because, unlike the Titanic, Mendi’s passengers were black South African volunteers, who were travelling to support the Allied forces in France.

Pictured: Brisbane Festival publicity posters, lighting up the city.

Pictured: Brisbane Festival publicity posters, lighting up the city.

Much of the story focuses on the way in which the disparate group, of many tribal backgrounds, were disciplined. Drills are an important method used to train soldiers. The repetition of set movements, under strict instruction and to set timing, are a means of establishing control—shaping individuals into an army or coherent whole. Fred Khumalo’s Dancing the Death Drill—the novel that inspired the show—draws on an oral tradition that Reverend Isaac Wauchope Dyobha, a chaplain on the ship, called the drowning men to attention saying, “Be quiet and calm, my countrymen, for what is taking place now is exactly what you came to do. You are going to die, but that is what you came to do. Brothers, we are drilling the drill of death.”

Cape Town’s Isango Ensemble has created a powerful theatrical experience, introduced as “our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace.” It is not only a lament, but a piece that challenges the white-washing of cultural memory, and is a production that inspires and entertains. Led by Music Director Mandisi Dyantysis (who also plays Dyobha), and under the direction of Mark Dornford-May, it is a theatrical tour-de-force that blends a variety of musical styles, from the operatic through to Township music—and includes a sea shanty, Gilbert and Sullivan-style operetta, and a traditional Irish ballad. The cast are narrators (often speaking directly to the audience), foley artists (watch for the sounds created for the burial at sea), actors, singers and musicians. And very fine musicians and vocalists they are too—from drumming on the set, through to performing a riveting vocal range. The QPAC stage rings to some very powerful voices as they perform the rigid, and often-restrained, European music—and almost explodes with the joy of the vibrant Township performances.

The SS Mendi story is much less familiar than that of Titanic, but has many powerful lessons for 2019 Australian audiences. Over one hundred years ago, the Master of the destructive cargo ship received a mere one-year suspension of his licence, despite having caused the disaster and failed to rescue any survivors. After the on-stage representation of this ‘whitewashing’, the play draws to a close with the entreaty “not to hate the man, just hate the system that made him.”  This theatrical event—what the Isango Ensemble describes as a ‘dance for truth’—encourages audiences from all countries to question the whitewashing of their own histories, and to seek out other stories from their own country.

Go if you want a thought-provoking theatrical experience. Look out for the superb portrayal of the Ship itself, relish the moments of humour, revel in some fantastic marimba music, and enjoy the dancing. The spine-chilling harmonies, and superb vocal work by this fantastic cast are unmissable. You’ll be pleased you bought that ticket before it sells out.

 Verdict: Not to be missed: spine-chilling song, great humour, wonderful dance moves, and a story that speaks to Australian audiences.

Audience tip: Book a ticket while you can—only 4 performances during the 2019 Brisbane Festival (5-7 September, 7:30pm each evening plus 1:30pm on 7 September only). 85 minutes. 15+ adult themes (suicide and death references), and limited smoke haze. Tickets are $49-$65 (plus booking fee).

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Thursday 5 September 2019 preview (7:30pm).

Picture credits: Creative Futures Photography (note: images include a picture of a Brisbane Festival poster [design and image created by Brisbane Festival])