A Nuffield Southampton Theatres and Isango Ensemble Production co-production. Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Nuffield Southampton Theatre

​ The Royal Opera and Isango Ensemble present SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill for the first time in the Linbury Theatre. The piece is based on the book Dancing the Death Drill by Fred Khumalo (adapted by Obisesan) and is a powerful and moving requiem inspired by a real-life tragic maritime disaster during World War I.

In early 1917, the SS Mendi set sail from Cape Town, taking hundreds of black South African volunteers to support the Allied forces fighting in France. More than two million Africans saw service in World War I, but the passengers of the SS Mendi were not among them.

Early in the morning of 21 February 1917, the Mendi collided with a cargo ship amid thick fog in the English Channel south of the Isle of Wight and sank, killing 616 South Africans and 30 of the ship's crew.

In this moving work, individuals from disparate cultures become united in a final dance as the damaged ship goes down. This is the first London showing of the production after a hugely successful UK premiere at Nuffield Southampton Theatres. The premiere was one of the 14–18 NOW WW1 Centenary Art Commissions.

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is directed by Mark Dornford-May, Artistic Director of the award-winning South African theatre company Isango Ensemble. Musical direction is by Mandisi Dyantyis and Paulina Malefane, movement is by Lungelo Ngamlana and lighting design is by Mannie Manim, relit by Chloe Kenward. The company is made up of both classically trained and untrained singers from the townships surrounding Cape Town.

Award-winning South African lyric theatre company Isango Ensemble, based in Cape Town, was founded in 2000 by Mark Dornford-May and Paulina Malefane. Their productions have toured the world, winning numerous awards. Isango has won worldwide acclaim for vibrant productions that reimagine the classics in inventive new contexts. Previous productions include uCarmen eKhayelitsha, The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo and A Christmas Carol – Ikrismas Kherol.

Isango Ensemble uses a variety of instruments, including marimbas, drums carved from wood or made from old oil drums and covered with rawhide, empty plastic drinks bottles and drums made out of old dustbins, as well as the oldest percussion instruments of all, their own hands and feet.

Isango Ensemble alternates performances of SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill with A Man of Good Hope.

SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill opens at the Royal Opera House on 18 April 2019.


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