Mandela’s inspiring words ring out in song – but this new musical has nothing to say

Michael Luwoye (centre) stars in the new Mandela musical - Helen Murray
Michael Luwoye (centre) stars in the new Mandela musical - Helen Murray

Next year, it will be a decade since Nelson Mandela died, aged 95, and 30 years since he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his indispensable role in transforming South Africa. Whether in SA or further afield, those anniversaries afford a golden invitation to reflect on his legacy.

So, it’s good timing for the world premiere of Mandela, a musical endorsed by his family, above all his granddaughter Nandi and great-grandson Luvuyo Madasa. The show has, I hate to say it, too many dispiriting flaws, but equally it recaps his inspiring story in ways that can’t help but move us. There are moments when you hear the great man’s words and the hairs stand in thrilled salute on the back of your neck.

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination,” intones Michael Luwoye in the title role, in a number that turns into song Mandela’s address at the 1964 Rivonia Trial, which saw him imprisoned for life for his role in acts of sabotage. It’s a bold move, but such musicalisation accentuates the soulfulness of Mandela’s finest oratory.

At its best, especially in the second half, the show, composed with lyrics in English, Zulu, Xhosa and Afrikaans by (white) South African brothers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky, achieves an exhilarating sense of how his singular, undaunted eloquence united with a groundswell of passion in his people, expressed through defiant song and dance, to become a cultural force capable of sweeping away a savage order.

The theatrical dynamic pits lung-busting township vigour against a dehumanising establishment rhetoric that found barbaric expression in the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the evening’s starting point (the action then taking in Mandela’s radicalisation, inordinate incarceration and patience-rewarded emancipation).

Gregory Maqoma’s choreography is the driving force of Mandela - Helen Murray
Gregory Maqoma’s choreography is the driving force of Mandela - Helen Murray

Every time Gregory Maqoma’s blistering, foot-stomping choreography moves centre stage, Schele Williams’s production thrillingly connects us to a world of churning hope, despair – and rage. The perplexing frustration is that the Borowksys keep slowing the momentum with a surfeit of samey ballads of generic plaintiveness. Laiona Michelle’s book oddly places too much emphasis on the pangs of domestic separation and too little on political and biographical nitty-gritty.

We don’t expect hatchet jobs; we do need more substance. Danielle Fiamanya as Winnie arrestingly suggests an ordinary woman impelled by trauma to violent activism, and thereby in a starkly different direction to her increasingly pacific husband. But like the continually dignified, rather inscrutable Luwoye (a vocal match for Mandela’s husky tones) she’s hobbled by an overly one-note characterisation. Mandela remains a towering figurehead; for all its rousing high points and good intentions, this tribute looks like a footnote.

Until Feb 4. Tickets: 020 7922 2922; youngvic.org