This musical biopic of South Africa’s great unifying leader is a storming celebration of the human spirit and the human voice. It’s not easy to portray a secular saint on stage – especially if you’re working “in proud partnership” with his family – but the creators manage it, and Broadway star Michael Luwoye brings force and charisma to the part.
There are times when the show’s pleasing simplicity becomes simplistic and the second half is stronger than the first. But when Luwoye, Danielle Fiamanya’s Winnie Mandela or the entire cast are in full, roaring voice it’s overwhelming. What a coup for the Young Vic to secure this world premiere.
American writer Laiona Michelle and South African composer/lyricist brothers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky begin the story with the Sharpeville Massacre in 1960, where 69 black protestors against the apartheid regime’s racist “pass laws” were killed and 130 injured. They end it in 1990. A bold choice, as Mandela was imprisoned for the last 27 of those 31 years.
But weirdly, it’s the early scenes when he is at liberty, speechifying, organizing the bombing of infrastructure with ANC colleagues, or briefly in hiding, that are the clumsiest: full of exposition, character establishment, and generic songs about children living in freedom. Once he’s incarcerated, the narrative blossoms and the music deepens into beautiful harmonies.
It’s the detail that hits home. Prisoners on Robben Island got eight sheets of toilet paper a day and one visitor every six months. Black prisoners wore shorts, others trousers. Mandela wasn’t able to attend the funeral of his son Thembi after he died in a car accident: he didn’t properly meet his young daughters Zeni and Zindzi until they were teenagers.
We see how much Mandela missed, the forbearance, wit and implacable will with which he bore it, and the way Winnie’s own travails warped her. The prison warden, won over from hard-line institutional racism, describes his prisoner as “a man who won’t allow himself to hate despite what we have taken”.
Musical themes recur and develop, including the opening song’s dropping three-chord progression – “Man-de-laaa” – which sounds like an affectionate sigh. The show is staged by Schele Williams on an almost-bare set with stamping, calf-slapping choreography by Gregory Maqoma. Sometimes the band drops away to leave us with a powerful wall of voices: even then, the piercing tones of Prudence Jezile as the Praise Singer ring out distinctly.
Much of the characterisation is sketchy, sometimes deliberately so. We don’t learn much about Mandela’s fellow inmates Walter Sisulu and Ahmed Kathrada, and white ally Joe Slovo gets a few lines, early on. During the prison years, Ntsikelelo Nicholas Vani’s Oliver Tambo travels the world, imploring western nations to impose sanctions in song. He doesn’t have much of a personality, either. But in a neat inversion of the dehumanising structure of apartheid, the Afrikaner oppressors don’t even have names.
Meanwhile, Luwoye, Fiamanya and the actors playing the Mandela children eloquently suggest the reality behind the myth. The two leads have some fine, spine-shivering solos and he has a glorious duet with Leanne Robinson as Zindzi. When he comes on for the finale in one of Mandela’s trademark patterned shirts it’s a lovely touch.
Young Vic, to 4 Feb; buy tickets here