He wore a big smile.
The life of the late Nelson Mandela is a colourful swirl of positivity and change after some very dark turns. But the fortitude he showed in life — after confronting the deaths of loved ones, incarceration for years and basically being doused by a government steeped in apartheid that did not want to let the practice of segregation go — is a lesson in optimism and grit.
As South Africa’s first democratically elected President — he was chosen in 1994, and passed at the age of 95 in 2013 — once said, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
No wonder his life’s tale makes for a critically-acclaimed telling. The Mandela Trilogy, which runs at the Dubai Opera from November 9-11, follows the freedom fighter’s journey from his tribal initiation to his 27 years in prison and finally, freedom. And one way of doing this is through the rich variety of music the country has to offer. “South Africa has many different musical styles — the evening of musical theatre looks at these different styles to tell Mandela’s story,” explains award-winning author of the libretto, Michael Williams, who is also the managing director of Cape Town Opera, where it was first performed in 2010. “We have the music from the hills of the Transkei, the songs of the shebeens from the townships, the struggle songs of the fight for freedom, and the songs of joy when he is released from prison.”
The musical tribute has been hosted by Cardiff, Munich, London, Southampton, Dublin, Manchester and Birmingham.
Ahead of the show in Dubai, Williams had much to say about what the audience can expect from the three-part opera. “[It is] a bright, bold and brassy show that pulls together all the musical traditions of South Africa. Mandela Trilogy depicts three different phases of Nelson Mandela’s life. The first part is set in the days of his youth when he lived in the Transkei. The cast will sing some of the traditional South African songs that formed the soundtrack of his life as we meet the young Mandela and the challenges he faced leaving his traditional home. In the second act, we meet Nelson Mandela in the prime of his life in the fifties — and here we hear the music of Miriam Makeba and other favourites from his days as a young lawyer. In the final act, the music moves from the anger of the courtroom where he was sent to prison, through his years in prison to his eventual release. The South African cast sing and dance, portraying different sides of this well-known South African story, set on Robben Island prison.”
Actor Mandla Mndebele was only too aware of the big boots he had to fill, playing a senior Mandela. He was after all an icon and “people expect what they have seen or heard about Mandela”.
The way to overcome this challenge? ”I decided to play the character in my own voice,” he says.
And it was important that he get the nuances right, for the story is not just about a beloved leader and global peace icon but also about a message that seems particularly pertinent now. “We are all striving to live in a non-racial society and he articulates this vision perfectly,” explained Williams.
“People can live in peace and Freedom in the Rainbow Nation,” echoed Mndebele.
Don’t miss it!
Tickets to The Mandela Trilogy, which runs from November 9-11 at the Dubai Opera, start at Dh250.