Arts Ambassador Louise Johnson reflects on SS Mendi, a powerful new production at Nuffield Southampton Theatres as part of the WW1 centenary art commissions 14-18 NOW. Image © The Other Richard, 2018
Having not heard of the tragic story of SS Mendi that happened just over a hundred years ago, this show brings to light a shameful episode in British history that was all too easily buried during WW1.
This breath-taking and powerful work by South African theatre company, Isango Ensemble brought history vividly to life through performance and live music that didn’t leave a dry eye in house. This emotional tale even left the performers blurry eyed as the hidden history of what happened has finally told.
At around 5am on 21 September 1917 the SS Mendi, a British troop ship sailing from South Africa to the UK with 823 men of the 5th Battalion the British Army’s South African Native Labour Corps was hit by a Royal Mail packet-ship off the Isle of Wight coast. The Darro, three times larger than the troop ship, was travelling at full speed in the foggy waters. The cargo ship tore a 6-metre-wide hole along the starboard side of the Mendi. Despite the extreme damage inflicted and the audible cries of its distressed passengers, the Darro’s Captain Henry W Stump sailed on regardless – this inhumane act resulted in the deaths of 646 men (607 of them black troops) in the icy waters. The inquest found Captain Stump guilty of “having travelled at a dangerously high speed in thick fog, and of having failed to ensure that his ship emitted the necessary fog sound signals”. As punishment Stump’s license was suspended for 12 months.
The first thing I noticed when walking into the theatre was the large sloped stage. Once in my seat (in the front row) I noticed that on either side of the stage were percussion instruments and the actors sitting or standing beside them. The show began with a matter of fact monologue, that developed into song punctuated by short monologues given by the actors, depicting the beginning of each individual volunteer’s journey to their inevitable end. The narrator invited the audience to come alongside the men, from the start of their journey, to set foot aboard the vessel and experience the conditions the British Army ‘volunteers’ were subjected to.
The music that was played and sung throughout enhanced our understanding of the characters and contributed to the audiences’ experience of the work. The traditional vocals of South African men and women brought forth the emotions of the scenes and explored the scenarios that may have happened throughout the voyage.
The atmosphere was heavy throughout due to the weight of the lives lost, and even the humorous moments could not overcome the sense of dread felt within the auditorium of what was to happen.
SS Mendi’s sinking was a horrific and avoidable maritime disaster that resulted in the futile loss of so many young lives. The production is rightly critical of the way in which the British Empire exploited people of colour, and how WW1 became a mask for this tragic little-known episode. The closing scene where Captain Stump playfully paints out the words ‘SS Mendi’ as evidence from the inquest is read out, reflects how British colonial history has disregarded black lives and the SS Mendi, like many other stories, have simply been ‘white washed’ out of history.
The story presented by the cast shared the hope and courage the men showed on their voyage until the bitter end. The story is a celebration of life and the sudden moment of death that these men faced, coming together from different tribes, becoming brothers and dancing the death drill as the ship went down.
It was an emotional rollercoaster that I won’t forget any time soon. It was heart wrenching and overwhelming, not just for me and from what I could see around me, everyone in the audience and the actors too.
SS Mendi Dancing the Death Drill, a commission by 14-18 NOW was at NST City, 29 June – 14 July 2018.
Arts Ambassadors is a paid opportunity, supported by the Careers and Employability Service’s Excel Southampton Internship programme, University of Southampton.