Young Vic Theatre, London – until 4 February 2023
The story of Nelson Mandela has become almost a folktale: imprisoned for 27 years for campaigning against the hideous “apartheid” regime which kept the black majority poor and brutalised, he spoke only about “black and white working together” and emerged as a leader working for reconciliation.
It’s a heroic legend, not a story that lends itself to political subtlety: this world premiere, by Laiona Michelle and composers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky, acknowledges “proud partnership” with his family, tells the story with impassioned and rightly partisan simplicity. Michael Luwoye is a towering Mandela: idealistic, sorrowful at violence, deploying his familiar humour and unresentful humanity.
There could be a more nuanced side-story about the way his wife Winnie, in that long lonely ordeal, became a more savage and irrationally violent figure in the struggle: that tragedy is hinted at only in an electric, furious confrontation as Danielle Fiamanya tells him that for decades he has been safe in prison, gently befriending his warders, while she was out struggling and raising their children. But for now this is a story of great-heartedness, a powerful one in our age of fashionable race theories which foster mistrust, resentment and dislike.
It pulls no punches about the awfulness of the regime: we see the Sharpeville Massacre brutally mowing down peaceful demonstrators, and the flat paranoia of the white Afrikaner leadership convinced that making the slightest concession to democracy would been whites “chased into the sea”. They stand rigid the balcony above the dancing, hopeful cast and the Mandela children dreaming of their father (it’s joyful at times); later other figures make it clear why America and Britain were slow to impose sanctions to protect their trade. When President de Klerk and Mandela shake hands in prison there’s a shiver, and more in an astonishingly moving song when his last warder (who became a friend) feels rueful astonishment about how he thought before.
I admit approaching this with particular emotion. My father’s posting meant that the year Nelson Mandela was imprisoned I was 12, in a South African school under regrettably racist nuns. The illogical brutality of apartheid was obvious; my mother, appalled, would take me to help distribute food to children in the impoverished townships.
When after a year I was sent home to England I was afraid my father wouldn’t get out before a bloody revolution. It felt inevitable. That 30 years passed before the peaceful, reconciliatory open elections always seemed to me a miracle.
BOX OFFICE http://www.youngvic.org to 4 Feb