Peace As Mandela

Peace Nzirawa as Mandela with (far right) Adrian Galley as The Most Reverend Trevor Huddlestone. Picture: Victor-Frankowski.

Mandela

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

NELSON Mandela is one of the towering, iconic figures of the 20th century, a firebrand activist against the evil of apartheid who was to grow into a world statesman and peacemaker.

It would have been easy to sanitise his story, turn him into a squeaky clean hero, but the excellent Cape Town Opera have avoided that pitfall in their 2010 trilogy which is part opera, part musical, part storytelling – a biopera of Mandela’s life.

Mandela himself openly admitted that he was no saint and this is a warts and all production.

He was a womaniser, dallied with communism and where the black Africa National Congress party wanted to follow the Gandhi policy of non-violent passive resistance, which had worked in India, Mandela, like Gandhi, a lawyer, co-founded the armed wing of the ANC – living up to the old adage that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.

A charismatic black leader calling for armed rebellion put the fear of God into the deeply racist, hardline, right wing, all white mainly Boer Government. It culminatmandela in jailed in 1964 in Mandela being accused of ‘sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government’ – anything to take him out of the picture. The judge, who had thrown out a case against Mandela the previous year, refused a call for the death penalty sentencing Mandela instead to life.

Mandela opens on Robben Island 14 years into his sentence, where Mandela, sung with authority by baritone Aubrey Lodewyk, is offered freedom, with strings, if he will return to his home village, renounce violence, be a good boy and live a quiet life in Cape Province.

Aubrey Lodewyk as Mandela who spent 27 years in jail Picture: John Snelling

Mandela refuses and we are taken back in time to Transkei where the young Mandela, sung by Thato Machona, is initiated into manhood, and takes part in tribal rituals in a section with music by Péter Louise van Dijk, who also scores the third act, and words by writer and director Michael Williams.

Tribal dances and chants give way to jazz as the young Mandela heads to Johannesburg to avoid an arranged marriage and here he is sung by Peace Nzirawa, a big man who fills the stage with a big smile and a big booming baritone voice.

This second act is set in Sophiatown, dirt poor but the cultural centre of Black South Africa’s jazz, blues, music, writing and . . . politics. As white suburbs expanded in Jo’berg Sophiatown and its black and non-white population was becoming too close to white sensibilities so laws were passed to raise it to the ground and relocate the 60,000 or so inhabitants.

Mandela, married to Evelyn, sung by Pumza Mxinwa, with children, is also having an affair with jazz singer Dolly, sung by Zolina Ngejane, who belts out the lively Miriam Makeba 1957 hit Pata Pata along with Mandela and Evelyn.

This is a section which is closer to musical than opera with music by Mike Campbell and songs of hope such as Freedom in our time, Hearts and Minds and Let us Speak of Freedom.

Mandela, a regular in the clubs and nightlife, is still a political activist though and still on police radar, befriended and championed by English priest and lifelong anti-apartheid campaigner the Most Reverend Trevor Huddlestone, played by Adrian Galley. It is a time when he also marries Winnie, sung by Philisia Sibek.

From the demolished Sophiatown we move to Mandela’s trial and incarceration and gradual softening of Government attitude.

Here Lodewyk returns as the older Mandela, whose influence on the ANC and the freedom movement still remains. But we see his change in direction and dismay at the increasing violence being organised and encouraged by the ever more militant Winnie.mandela

His relationship with warders, particularly the everyman Whiteman, sung by Arthur Swan, grows into friendship and eventually, amid growing international pressure, the Government, under F. W. de Klerk, who gets no mention in the opera, lifted the ban on the ANC and released Mandela unconditionally in 1990.

Evita like Mandela addresses the people upon his release. Picture: John Snelling

We leave the opera in 1991, with a rousing finale of Time has Come, three years before Nelson Mandela becomes the first black president in the first elections with universal suffrage.

The finale gives full flow to the full Cape Town chorus which creates a full, deep, rich and magnificent sound.

Songs are in English, with a traditional protest song in Zulu and some songs in isiXhosa, a Bantu language native to Mandela’s homeland.

Cape Town Opera have a fine chorus and the few moments of a capella singing are just magical. African music, rhythm and harmony are distinctive and it is a pity more could not have been incorporated. This is the story of Mandela’s journey, he might be the main man, but that’s no reason not to show off the magnificent singing of this fine company a bit more.

The setting, from Michael Mitchell, is simple, utilising a wide, thin video screen to set mood and tone from the green countryside to the black and white bleakness of prison. It is minimal but effective and ideal for a tour with short runs – only two nights at the Hippodrome fir example.

Music comes from the excellent Cape Town Philharmonic conducted by Alexander Fokkens.

The result is an interesting and informative narrative with widely contrasting music from tribal to jazz, operatic to anthems.

It’s a difficult subject to portray in a couple of hours and Michael Williams has done well to keep the essence of both man and story in what is a fine and honest tribute. To 21-09-16

Roger Clarke

20-09-16  

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