Friday 5 October 2018

Review: Madiba the Musical, Melbourne

It's not often that a stage production has a disappointing first act, then redeems itself in the second. But Madiba the Musical is that production.

The clue to its flaws lies in its misleading name. We expect it to be a biographical treatment of Nelson Mandela's life, and it starts in that vein, with a set featuring Mandela (played by Perci Moeketsi) ministering to clients mistreated by South Africa's apartheid regime in his early career as a lawyer.

It looks like we're going to get a cherry-picked tale of the great man's life, which is a little daunting; Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the biopic starring Idris Elba, was faithful but laboured in telling that tale.

But Madiba immediately informs us that it's impossible to show us his whole life. This message is relayed by the Narrator (David Denis), a chorus-like character who raps his way through a great deal of exposition in jaunty style.

Given this admission, it's a pity the first act becomes a mish-mash of moments from Mandela's early years, a kind of 'greatest hits' of his fight against the regime and his eventual imprisonment.

The first law of storytelling is "Show, don't tell," but there's a lot of telling here.

Even crucial moments of violence such as the Sharpeville massacre are reduced to a single death, which mutes the emotional impact of such iconic incidents of state violence. And Winnie Mandela (Ruva Ngwenya) is so toned down that she's hardly recognisable as the forceful personality she was in real life.

Thankfully, the second act finally provides us an emotional entry point into this tumultuous era. A young black man named Will (Barry Conrad) has fallen in love with a young white woman, Helena (Madeline Perrone), whose policeman father Peter Van Leden (Blake Erickson) is a brutal enforcer of the status quo.

This star-crossed relationship provides the hook we need to feel the personal impact of apartheid, as the duo struggle to realise their love and are forced apart by the cruel reality of the regime's discriminatory laws.

When they finally reunite, in the post-apartheid era, we feel the surge of hope that must have accompanied the sweeping away of that unjust system.

Through their personal struggles, Mandela appears as an inspirational background character, whose own fate slowly evolves from prisoner to negotiator to free man... and then president.

Narrative flaws aside, the show's songs and dance are impressive throughout, with much co-opting of traditional African music and its rhythms.

For all the lively glory of the group numbers, the standout for me is Mandela's solo recitation of William Henley's poem Invictus, from which he's known to have drawn great strength.

In this year, the centenary of his birth, there are many celebrations of Nelson Mandela and his achievements. Despite a slow start, Madiba the Musical is a worthy addition to their number.

Madiba the Musical continues at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne to 28 October 2018, then tours Australia and New Zealand. Make bookings at Ticketmaster.

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