You’ll struggle this year to see a show more striking – or indeed more impressive – than Mandela Trilogy, a work which will leave a lasting impression on audiences wherever it goes.
Writer and director Michael Williams was asked by Cape Town Opera to put on stage one of the most important lives of the 20th century. He has done so superbly, suggesting not just the heroism and the sacrifice, but also the ambiguities and the complexities of the great Nelson Mandela.
Williams’ stroke of genius is to give us successively three different Mandelas in three different phases of his life, three different voices each appropriate to the era, starting with his tribal roots and passing through his Johannesburg years before entering his decades of incarceration.
We start with Mandela emerging from tribal ritual into confident manhood only to be told the shattering truth that he is destined to be a slave; then we have Mandela finding his voice on behalf of his people while discovering that his destiny – or at the very least, his womanising – is incompatible with conventional family life.
Finally we have Mandela the prisoner, a man appalled at the violence to which his wife Winnie is resorting, a man determined to walk to freedom only on terms that make that freedom worth having.
The upbeat jazz and swing in the central section is framed by the more conventional opera of Acts one and three; and if it’s this central section which stands out, then the reason is quite simply its brilliance, rich colours, high drama and the most fantastic rhythms, delivered by a huge and supremely-talented cast.
To set out to encapsulate Mandela in an evening would seems the vainest of hopes; and yet Williams combines with composers Peter Louis van Dijk and Mike Campbell to offer the most compelling of tributes. You walk away with the feeling you have a sense of the man and his struggle, thanks to an opera that sings of something that genuinely matters. Adding to the richness of it all is Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra on fine, fine form. An exceptional night in every respect.
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