Strong lead performances from Michael Luwoye and Danielle Fiamanya can’t hide the weakness in the writing of Mandela at the Young Vic
“No talking politics”
The writing is right on the wall. Mandela – a new musical is presented “in proud partnership with the Mandela family” and such closeness between creators and subject – particularly in the realm of biodrama – means that the storytelling is straitened, hamstrung by the need to please. It’s particularly frustrating when there’s so much potential there (qv Tina) but no appetite to investigate any of the real complexities of a life.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that Laiona Michelle’s book for Mandela is severely lacking. There’s a nominal focus on his years imprisoned on Robben Island but in terms of dramatic propulsion, narrative insight or searching character work, there is surprisingly little there. Dialogue is reduced to pronouncements and platitudes, politics pushed into the background and any rough edges to characters sanded right away.
And when one of your main characters is Winnie Mandela, that’s a real issue. But whilst Mandela is dramatically inert, Greg Dean Borowksy and Shaun Borowsky’s music and Gregory Maqoma’s choreography give it an enormous if intermittent sense of stage presence. Schele Williams’ production thus brings the energy when it can, but it is hard not to feel that they’re going for spectacle in place of substance.
The lead performances of Michael Luwoye’s Nelson and Danielle Fiamanya’s Winnie do what they can with the material, the vocal prowess of both indubitable. And the work of the ensemble shimmers with power in all its rousing choruses. But it is all in service of a portrait that, whilst not quite hagiographic, does so very little to deliver real justice to the man behind the myth.