(Bridget Minamore’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/6.)

Zamile Gantana takes a crate, sits in the middle of the stage, and gives a straightforward but lyrical explanation of what happened to the SS Mendi. In 1917, a total of 823 South African men boarded the ship to aid the British war effort; a month later, more than 600 of them drowned after a collision. “This is our lament for the souls of the dead, to bring them peace,” Gantana says. From this opening scene, the South African theatre company Isango Ensemble transfigure the idea of lament, turning grief into something poignantly beautiful, darkly funny and, at times, sharply angry.

The script follows a dozen or so men on the ship including an outspoken priest, a teenager told his presence brings bad luck, a mixed-race recruit and a white officer. Adapted by Gbolahan Obisesan alongside the 14-strong ensemble, the play shows the racist indignities the men faced on board before their tragic deaths.

Mark Dornford-May’s direction, combined with Lungelo Ngamlana’s choreography and Mandisi Dyantyis’ musical direction, is extraordinary. Using few instruments and scant props, the world around the Mendi, from train journeys to bird sounds, is realised using movement, music and voice work.

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Photo: The Times of London

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