How did this happen? How can presumably hundreds of people have seen this musical in development and remained steadfastly unconcerned about the fact it barely has a plot, and has ascribed negligible personality, background or even centrality of focus to its nominal lead character of Nelson Mandela, probably the single most revered politician of the twentieth century?
There is a lot of talent on display in Schele Williams’s surely Broadway-intended production. Greg Dean and Shaun Borowsky’s Xhosa-chased choral songs are a refreshing and often exhilarating alternative to pat showtunes, even if the score is ludicrously overwrought at times: it intrudes loudly upon every scene, taking up space that really should have gone to dialogue, and I can't see how anybody could defend the preposterous ‘80s-style rock guitar less good. Gregory Maqoma’s aerobic choreography gives it a kinetic, free-flowing dynamism, a sense of perpetual motion, plus thrilling moments when individual dancers break out and claim the stage.
It’s decently cast, too: Broadway actor Michael Luwoye is a stern, charismatic Mandela - not the benign elder statesman of his later years, but good casting for the younger resistance fighter, who was arrested for treason against South Africa’s apartheid government and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.
But as a piece of storytelling about Mandela’s life, the musical that bears his name is beyond woeful. Laiona Michelle’s book is not in any way concerned with historical detail. There’s no mention of the ANC or the names of any of South Africa’s white prime ministers - Mandela is simply introduced as being part of a generic resistance against an oppressive white minority government that is always headed up by Earl Carpenter’s nameless Prime Minister.
That’s absolutely fine, of course: not every show about a historical figure needs to be a history lecture.
But most shows about historical figures… should be about the historical figure in question. For whatever reason Mandela is barely explored in his own show. We learn nothing whatsoever about the first half of his life, and his only significant intervention before going to jail is to loudly proclaim a couple of times that it’s important that the acts of sabotage him and his comrades are engaged in don’t hurt anyone. Fair enough: that was his approach. But it hardly constitutes an in depth exploration of his life, motives and thinking.
What we do learn is that he had a family who he loved: specifically wife Winnie, daughters Zeni and Zindzi, plus son Thembi (from his first marriage, which isn’t talked about). Herein lies the rub. No phrase in musical theatre chills the bone quite like ‘made in partnership with [insert name of the show’s subject]’s family’. Estates invariably have Ideas about how they want the subject presented, and they’re rarely good ones. I have no insight into the creative process with this musical, and maybe this is simply the story Michelle really wanted to tell. But it is a fact that a show made ‘in proud partnership’ with Nelson Mandela’s family seems very concerned with Nelson Mandela’s family.
Select bits of it, anyway. In particular, Danielle Fiamanya’s Winnie gets at least as substantial an arc as her husband, portrayed as a loving mother and wife who boldly took up the reins of the struggle while her husband was imprisoned. That’s not totally untrue and again, I don’t want to get prescriptive here, but certainly the show steers well clear of the many bad things that Winnie famously got up to in the ‘80s (she had a lot of people killed!).
We get to know Mandela a bit better during the Robben Island-set second half - Luwoye has some humour, compassion and humanity to get his teeth into. In particular, the sequence where he learns of the death of his son Thembi and comes to realise he will never be allowed out for the funeral is poignant and enraging. But is there any real insight into his thinking, or even meaningful explanation as to why he emerged from Robben as such a colossal political figure? No! Absolutely not. The show is so busy trying to rehabilitate Winnie that it doesn’t have time for such trivialities.
‘Mandela’ has merits from a technical and performance point of view, and I’m acutely aware that getting worked up about historical details and accuracy may be a me thing when it comes to musical theatre. We’ve all read ‘The Long Walk To Freedom’, you could argue - a Nelson Mandela musical can function off pure vibes, it doesn’t need to do heavy lifting in terms of storytelling.
But it just seems like such a monumental missed opportunity: Mandela had a fascinating and inspirational life, but the musical that bears his name frequently seems barely interested in it. And it’s troubling that it seems to go to such great pains to advocate for Winnie, who was, at best, a deeply problematic figure. With the artistry on display, it could have been a fairly corny, fairly generic journey through the highlights of Mandela’s life and times and still been perfectly fine. Instead it’s a singularly inadequate tribute to one of the great humans of our time.