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Musical theatre, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Fiction at the forefront of Mandela tribute

Review: Madiba: The Musical ·
Crown Theatre, 3 January ·
Review by Claire Trolio ·

On the surface there’s a lot to like about Madiba: The Musical. Originally written and composed in French by Jean-Pierre Hadida with co-author Alicia Sebrien, the work has been adapted into English by Dylan Hadida and Dennis Watkins in this new, Australian production. Directed by Pierre-Yves Duchesne, it’s a fast-paced, frenetic story about one of the world’s most celebrated revolutionaries, Nelson Mandela.

Aside from some wavering South African accents, the cast delivered a flawless performance on opening night, packed with booming vocals from Ruva Ngwenya, Tarisai Vushe, Tim Omaji, Barry Conrad, Madeline Perrone and Blake Erickson. The indefatigable ensemble, led by Tiana Canterbury, kept the energy high as they performed Johan Nus’s dynamic steps, in striking costumes (designed by Sabrina Gomis Vallée) which evoked the colours and streets of South Africa over four decades.

Dancer, rapper and singer David Denis was a crowd favourite as the narrator, weaving together the story which spans 42 of Mandela’s 95 years, whilst Perci Moeketsi offered depth and dignity in the title role.

Yet despite the star power spilling from the stage, Madiba: The Musical doesn’t do the Mandela story justice.

Mandela seems more of a background character than the main event. The show skips lightly over much of his life, choosing instead to focus in depth on fictional characters. His activist wife, Winnie, is also given a smaller part than befits her life’s achievements. While Ruva Ngwenya performed the role of Winnie with grace, I was still left feeling that a strong voice had been silenced. It is disappointing that, with the wealth of material available in the true stories of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, so much time is spent on fabricated scenarios.

In particular, too much stage time is given to an interracial love story between idealistic Helena and aspiring artist and activist Will, as well as to Helena’s father Peter Van Leden, a racist white police officer who later struggles to come to terms with guilt about his actions. The message here is unequivocal: oppression doesn’t just hurt the oppressed, but the oppressors too, and the scars left on a nation’s psyche as a result of brutal injustices run deep on both sides. It’s a valuable lesson but it doesn’t need to be taught through a white lens. Even the police shooting of a black individual becomes more about the effect it had on the white policeman than the man whose life was stolen, or his family left behind. Does the story benefit from these white voices? Not for me.

While Madiba: The Musical may not hit the mark as a tribute to Mandela, it does, nonetheless, make for an entertaining and thought-provoking couple of hours. This is an uplifting tale of good triumphing over evil and a celebration of resistance, culture and, of course, freedom.

Madiba: The Musical plays Crown until January 12.

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