On February 21, 1917, SS Mendi, a steamship acting as a troop carrier, collided with the cargo ship Darro 11 miles off the coast of the Isle of Wight.
As a result 646 people died, the vast majority of the them black South African soldiers heading to fight in France. Despite the huge loss of life, the tragedy has largely slipped into obscurity.
To mark the centenary, the Royal Navy took part in a wreath-laying at the spot where she sank, and there was a service at Milton Cemetery, where nine of the men are buried.
And now Nuffield Theatre has teamed up with the Cape Town-based Isango Ensemble to produce a new work commemorating the incident, SS Mendi: Dancing The Death Drill, which makes it’s premiere next week.
Last month, Nuffield’s director Sam Hodges headed out to Cape Town to see how the show was coming together. And as he admits, this is a little different from their usual co-productions.
‘With my artistic director hat on, in terms of the productions we do here, if I’m not directing them, I’m here to support the director, to be in rehearsals every now and then. Normally it’s to be involved in every step of the process, to guide it through, but this is an unusual one. The Isango Ensmble is a long-standing company who have been in Cape Town for 18 years. They’re a genuine ensemble, this is all these guys do, so they know each other incredibly well.’
The ensemble has spent several months collaborating on the project in a process most in European theatre would find unfamiliar.
‘When I was out of there, they were doing a series of work-in-progress performances in front of small invited audiences, and then they were rehearsing all day, so there were a lot of changes going on in the day which were in response to how the performance the night before went and the notes I was giving to them.
‘It’s both intense and amazingly ego-free. Broadly speaking, actors in this country, you’re given a role and you’re given a script, and you’re relatively possessive of that part. My experience is that if you cut anyone’s lines, even in a new play, they get very upset. With these guys, not only was there a lack of ego, but everyone seemed to know all of the other parts, musically and in terms of the text.
‘The director would constantly say: “Ooh, let’s try it with you doing that”, or “Let’s cut this song and move that over there”. And the speed and flexibility with which these guys were able to make changes were phenomenal. I’ve never seen anything like it before.’
Although Sam was aware of the ensemble, this is the first time they’ve worked together.
‘They’re a Cape Town company, but they’re not really known at all in CapeTown because they don’t have any funding over there, they rely on co-producers in the west.
‘Their big champion has been the Young Vic in London, for their most recent production they did at the Young Vic, and the Royal opera House and BAM in New York. It’s sort of weird, on one level they’re this quite humble group of people who all live in the townships on the outskirts of Cape Town, so they’ve grown up in a very difficult, often violent, certainly poor, environment and yet they have this incredibly high-powered support.
‘People like theatre and film director Stephen Daldry and Simon Rattle, one of the leading conductors, are big fans of this company. I was out there at the same time as [South African-born] David Lan, who used to run the Young Vic until recently, and he’s a big supporter of theirs.
They’re not known locally, but they have this great international reputation. This is the first time they’ve opened a show outside London.’
Highlighting a story that people are unaware of was a large part of the attraction for Sam.
‘People don’t really know the story in South Africa either. The reason the boat went down and the men weren’t saved, even though there were two ships nearby was quite clearly, according to historical records from the time, racial. The vast majority of them were black, and that’s the reason that a) they weren’t saved and b) this story has been sort of swept under the carpet.
‘It’s been sort of dubbed the “Black Titanic”, and what’s quite interesting for Southampton for where Titanic is a huge story – we just had Titanic The Musical at Mayflower, this is also a story with a huge loss of life, and yet no-one knows about it.
‘It feels like an important story to tell, and being out there in South Africa, their culture has a much bigger focus and emphasis placed on the spirit world than here, it feels quite ritualistic, almost as if the idea of the show is conjuring up and honouring the spirits of the men who drowned.’
‘Despite it being a tragedy it’s also a sort of wonderful story about all of these men, all from different backgrounds and tribes from across Africa, becoming united in those last moments.
‘Whether or not it’s true, there’s the rumour that they danced this death drill. We know that reverend Isaac, who was a real man, gave this extraordinary speech as they went down, he gave this speech about being brothers and uniting in death.
‘And there’s this idea that they danced this defiant, but also celebratory, dance as the ship went down.’
The production also take a minimalist approach.
‘In terms of theatre, there’s very little set, very little effects, it’s mostly music, and a lot of instruments, there’s almost no scenery, but they create the whole story very vividly. It’s very powerful.
‘It’s a real inspiration in terms of how simply you can bring a story to life and how quickly you can be moved – especially by the music. I can see why Simon Rattle is such a fan. The music is their strongest asset by a mile, it’s just off the scale.’
And Sam can see a resonance in the story that sadly continues to be relevant today.
‘You only look at something like the Stephen Lawrence case which was back in the news recently and is a case of historical whitewashing. These racial fault-lines are still very apparent and at the centre of the news.
‘From a theatrical side, there’s a big push to try and diversify our audiences and to make our work more inclusive and to move it away from the classic white, middle class audience that we’re associated with.
‘The thing about this though is that it’s not just another play about knife crime in east London, which is the sort of classic response to having a “black play” on stage, this is much more original than that. It’s more sort of joyful, even though it’s called Dancing The Death Drill – it’s a celebration of humanity.
‘I hope we can build an audience for it.’
The show is part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War Centenary.
Nuffield Theatre, Southampton
June 29-July 14