Nuffield Southampton Theatres will present the world première of SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill by critically acclaimed Cape Town-based Isango Ensemble. Part of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s official arts programme for the First World War centenary, the production commemorates an untold tragedy from WW1 that took place off the coast of Southampton. Prior to rehearsals beginning Samuel Hodges, Director of Nuffield Southampton Theatres will visit Cape Town where the SS Mendi began its journey. Mark Dornford-May directs the production which opens at Nuffield Southampton Theatres on Wednesday 4 July with previews from Friday 29 June and performances until Saturday 14 July. Dubbed the ‘Black Titanic’, the sinking of SS Mendi was one of the worst maritime disasters in the 20th century in UK waters.
January 1917, 823 South African men board the SS Mendi in Cape Town, volunteers for the British Army bound for the Western Front. Through a tragic twist of fate, Pitso Motaung finds himself aboard.
Months later, the ship sails off the coast of Southampton. Heavy pre-dawn fog shrouds the impending disaster. The collision comes with such force the SS Mendi sinks in minutes. By the time rescue arrives it is too late for most.
Paris, 1958. Two men are dead in a restaurant, attacked by the head waiter Pitso Motaung. Dark memories etched in Pitso’s mind are resurfacing decades later to devastating effect.
Director of Nuffield Southampton Theatres, Samuel Hodges said today, ‘’It’s a real privilege to be working with a company of the calibre of Isango Ensemble on this previously untold story from Southampton’s past. For a story of this magnitude to have been whitewashed from the history books beggars belief and we’re proud to be developing the world premiere, continuing NST’s commitment to telling local stories of national and international significance.’’
Jenny Waldman, Director of 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, said: “We are delighted to be commissioning Isango Ensemble for this powerful work about an untold tragedy. This new production will connect today’s audiences to the lost lives and histories from 100 years ago. SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is a highlight of our final 14-18 NOW season, in which we continue to engage people in the centenary through the lens of art.”
Since 2001 Isango Ensemble has toured its productions to Ireland, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Singapore, Turkey, Japan, Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the United States. Productions include The Mysteries – Yiimimangaliso which had two runs in the West End; uCarmen which toured to many of the world’s major festivals; The Magic Flute – Impempe Yomlingo featuring Mozart’s score transposed for an orchestra of marimbas, which won both an Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival and the Globes de Cristal for Best Opera following a sold-out season at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris; Venus & Adonis in partnership with Shakespeare’s Globe and in 2016 A Man of Good Hope co-produced by Young Vic, Royal Opera, Repons Foundation, BAM and Les Théâtres de la Ville de Luxembourg. Films created by the ensemble include uCarmen eKhayelitsha which won the Golden Bear at The Berlin International Film Festival as well as many other Best Feature Awards.
SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill is co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, Repons Foundation and Nuffield Southampton Theatres, with support from the National Lottery through Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and from the Department for Culture Media and Sport.