Mandela Trilogy captures an epic life on stage

Michael Williams admits it was a monumental undertaking when he set out to write and direct the Mandela Trilogy for Cape Town Opera, a show which now plays the Mayflower Theatre, Southampton (September 7-10, 02380 711811).

LtoR Lukhanyo Moyake as Justice and Thato Machona as Mandela 1 in MANDELA TRILOGY
LtoR Lukhanyo Moyake as Justice and Thato Machona as Mandela 1 in MANDELA TRILOGY

“We were faced with the onslaught of the (football) World Cup in 2010 in South Africa, and what transpired was that we didn’t really think we could put on La Boheme or Rigoletto!” Michael recalls.

“The artistic director at the time said we should do something on Mandela… which is a bit like taking Winston Churchill’s life and saying ‘I am going to write an opera!’

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“But I think the main point of writing a piece – and I have written theatre pieces before – is that you have to have conflict. Conflict is not a bad thing in that respect. It is the way we process problems and it is the way we come up with solutions. And I looked at Nelson Mandela’s life, and there is certainly plenty of conflict.”

From tribal initiation rites on the banks of the Mbashe River, through the heady and rebellious jazz-fuelled days in Sophiatown, to incarceration and reflection on Robben Island and finally beyond, to freedom, this is the story of one of the world’s most iconic figures.

Told in three parts by a cast and orchestra of over 60 South African performers, the music matches the vastly-different phases of Mandela’s journey from freedom fighter to president.

For Michael, the crucial starting point was his consideration of Mandela’s early days, going off into the bush for the traditional rites of passage: “He came out of the bush proud of what he had achieved and thinking that now he was a man. But the chief rained on his parade and said ‘You are nothing but slaves in this country, you will be nothing but a garden boy.’ Those words shocked him and shaped his future political life. Few people know that he ran away from his traditional home, from an arranged marriage.”

The conflict gave Michael the first Act in his trilogy (you watch all three Acts in the one show); the second dwells on the women in his life.

Each Act comes with music; the music of his homelands in the first which then gives way to the jazz Act of Act two, the Johannesburg years with the American musical influence coming through.

Act three is the prison years: “And the only way of dealing with the depths of emotion for that Act is opera,” as Michael explains. Put it all together and you get the Mandela Trilogy, three different Mandela with three different voices in the one evening in a piece which premiered while Mandela was still alive.

“I worked very closely with the Nelson Mandela Foundation. They gave me access to the archives. When we finished the piece, we sent the DVD to the Foundation, but I don’t know whether he got to see it.”

However, Mandela’s daughter got to see the show and said it absolutely nailed Mandela’s early years, just as he used to relate them around the lunch time – a real thrill for Michael.

Mandela died a year and a half after the premiere: “For me, that meant I started thinking about Mandela’s legacy for the country and for the world. The phrase that really struck me that I had put into the piece – he was offered his freedom three times while he was in prison – was the phrase that the purpose of freedom is to create it for others.”

With his passing, the phrase meant all the more: “It is even more apt for us today as we approach all our issues now. He also said ‘Talk to your enemy and don’t be afraid of the other’, and that was important. He really believed that it was the Afrikaans’ fear of ‘the other’ that brought about apartheid.”

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