Friday, November 23, 2018

Madiba the Musical

Madiba the Musical at Canberra Theatre Centre, November 22 – 24, 2018.

Author & Composer – Jean-Pierre Hadida (French language); Book by Jean-Pierre Hadida & Alicia Sebrien; English Adaptation by Dylan Hadida & Dennis Watkins.

Director (France) – Pierre Yves-Duchesne; Director (Australia) – Dennis Watkins; Musical Director – Michael Tyack; Choreographer – Johan Nus; English Language Producer – Neil Croker.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 22

Amandla in the Nguni languages means "power". The word was a popular rallying cry in the days of resistance against apartheid, used by the African National Congress and its allies. The leader of a group would call out "Amandla!" and the crowd would respond with "Awethu" or "Ngawethu!" (to us), completing the South African version of the rallying cry "power to the people!".

To create a musical in which the central character is isolated in jail for 27 years in the prime of his life, from the age of 44 to 71, has to be a daunting challenge.  But the spirit of Nelson Mandela is built into Madiba the Musical.  Amandla!  Though some reviewers criticise the quality of the song writing and music, in the end it is the spirit which shines through.

The story can be told in just a few pictures (selected from the most attractive and highly informative program), and audiences here can feel justifiably proud that the original director, Pierre-Yves Duchesne, could write:

“[Seeking] a cast to deliver this story on my first trip to Melbourne and Sydney earlier this year for auditions, I discovered the giant artistic talent pool of this country.  We were able to work with the most talented artists, artists with strength in the three disciplines of musical theatre: singing, dancing and acting.  I am sure you will enjoy seeing your cast, a cast that would honour any stage in the world.”

The front cover above shows the hidden figure of Mandela as a spirit of the landscape of South Africa (so much of which is reminiscent of Australia since we were once joined together in Gondwana-land).

Here we see Mandela, the young lawyer in 1962 - the first black African to establish his own law firm.

In 1964 Mandela was charged with treason, found guilty because he could not say that if an armed rebellion against the apartheid regime took place, he would not support it.  This is the image of him in jail on Robben Island, off the coast of Capetown, where supporters had almost no access – one letter and one visitor per six months – because he was graded a Class D prisoner.

Here we see Nelson Mandela as a traditional figure of reknown, and his wife Winnie who stood by him throughout his incarceration.  At this point in 1982, after graduating to Class A prisoner in 1975, Mandela was transferred from the maximum security prison on Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town. From there, Mandela was moved to the then Victor Verster Prison on 9 December 1988, where he was able to communicate secretly with the exiled leader of the African National Congress, Oliver Tambo – and gained his LLB degree in law.

Though still in prison but steadfast in his belief that “freedom is our right”, and therefore can never be granted with conditions by anyone else,  here we see Mandela in his strength with his principles supporting the young couple establishing their love across the colour boundary.  Their story becomes central to our emotional engagement in Madiba the Musical.

And here is the image representing the practical purpose of Mandela’s position: all the people, whether “black”, “coloured” or “white” show their votes – one person, one vote – in the first truly democratic election in South Africa, in which Mandela (freed in 1990) was elected President on May 10, 1994.  We heard his speech, in silence, between the singing and dancing:

“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of millions of our people.  We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

The audience last night, filling the Canberra Theatre Centre, themselves represented all those rainbow colours and felt the power of Amandla! continuing in more dancing and singing of the South African National Anthem, and extended applause and cheering – finally ending after the most exciting curtain call I can remember in any theatre.

Perhaps the greatest cheer was for the amazing physical acrobatic display as the modern rapper, singer and songwriter he is, David Denis, the narrator who linked this huge story together with humour, wit and understanding.  Here he is:

Madiba the Musical is very good musical theatre about a great man who must never be forgotten – in South Africa, Australia, or the whole world.  The creation and world-wide presentation of Madiba, here in its first English language production (after its original success in France) will surely play its part in the betterment of society everywhere.