Madiba — the musical. So glad to see this production from The Young Vic, London — I ended up streaming it because the trains were horrendous. Love the livestream features from The Young Vic — you can choose your camera angle or follow the Director’s Cut version. I’m really grateful for this widening of access and as living history for me, was intrigued to see what we’d see and experience.

Never has there been a happier moment for me than to see this screen!

To begin with, it was quite simplistic — all white people (as shown in the suited South African government) were bad and all black people oppressed and by definition good. I’m not at all saying that the white South African government were right or good in their intentions and activities or that apartheid wasn’t evil and inherently wrong, but it lacked nuance to begin with. It was very rooted in identity politics — whereas the greatest evil of apartheid was that it graded and set people against each other — literally fifty shades of white, brown and black and restricted life choices — access to education, travel, movement, jobs, housing, land, marriage and relationships, children, finances, resources and ghettoing and setting people against each other, separating people purely by skin colour and ethnicity into isolated spheres. If you hadn’t grown up with Apartheid and the ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ campaign and concerts, (and that astonishing televised walk to freedom) as real things, I’m not sure that this production would put all of this across.

But with time it improved — when the ANC began to splinter and became involved in guerilla activities against a government which wasn’t listening or caring (or doing what was right). The octopus tentacles of apartheid across the world with Oliver Tambo seeking help and various governments being non-committal was very well done. I was waiting for Margaret Thatcher to pop up and start sidling up to the South African government with cricket tours etc (and that famous handbagging moment by our late lamented Queen Elizabeth II). That didn’t happen — what a musical moment that would have made!

Instead we got a sense of political opponents or so called terrorists on the move, using a farm where Winnie Mandela and his family are as a based, and the cost — he lost 27 years of family time, including not being able to attend his own son’s funeral. Here was when the nuance kicked in as we did see allies working alongside.

The prison was dramatically depicted — with a really moving moment when the prison guard (from whom Mandela is learning Afrikaans) suddenly realises how wrong the system he’s part of is and the humanity of the prisoners. Hinted at, but not really discussed, are the levels of humiliation — the reading and censoring of letters (the cutting out was missed out — his letters were literally full of holes), the restrictions of family visits, the persecution of prisoners’ families (such as the arrest and terrorising of Winnie Mandela), of Mandela seeing his daughters after so long and yet still being at a distance, the pettiness of pointless hard labour tasks, the isolation and the cruelty — such as wearing shorts, not trousers, in a freezing cold environment; the systematised, legalised spite and hatred against a people.

Determinedly revisionary in its depiction of Winnie Mandela, she was celebrated as a strong, fierce, politicised black woman — a loving wife and mother singing about her loved husband’s brave, government defying actions as she waits for the birth of their child, and her later horrible imprisonment. Having read up more about this, it was even worse than depicted and led to her radical and violent fight back, eventually separating her from Mandela. In a sense this is more a musical about Winnie than Mandela. I hoped for a break out of Robben Island Shakespeare — but no….On the other hand, the Mandela children were well portrayed, longing and hoping for their father and the sisters cared for by their brother (and eventually meeting their father after so many years).

A heart stopping moment came in seeing the school children gathering. Again as known history for me, I felt sick — I knew that the Soweto uprising was going to turn into a massacre. For someone for whom these things are history and not memory, the experience might have been more bewildering. The costumes don’t really give a sense of time and place, apart from obviously past. It’s only when the characters get grey streaks in their hair that we get a sense of aging and time passing.

De Klerk’s government begins to crumble under international pressure and he has a change of heart — Mandela must be released, bringing us to that momentous moment of Mandela’s walk to freedom, after 27 years of imprisonment. Overall in the musical, we saw the erudition, intelligence and love of reading of Madiba — his constant search for the human in an utterly dehumanising system. But I’m not sure it addressed the wider issues of living in and fighting against an apartheid system fully.

My learning came from the tireless work of Oliver Tambo — I didn’t realise he was given refuge in London and how he used the UK as a base to raise Mandela’s profile to the world. The music was excellent — and dance was integrated exceptionally well throughout. However the dance at the end was not half joyful enough — I remember seeing the throngs singing and dancing and exalting behind Mandela on that day — the joy seriously needed to be ramped up here. What it did hint at was Mandela’s hopes and dreams of an equal and educated rainbow nation of inclusion and integration. (Again I’m not sure the stringent identity politics framework could cope with this ideal — Mandela was the opposite of today’s cancel culture!)

Excellently staged, acted, danced and set, but could have been a bit more heavy weight (like James Graham) in terms of content — definitely more Winnie Mandela, than Mandela’s musical.



By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....

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Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....