February 21st, 1917: a ship sinks in the U-boat infested waters of the English Channel, with the loss of over six hundred lives. So far, so banal, but the SS Mendi was not an ordinary ship and it was not a U-boat that sank her. When you pick apart the events, the story is not about war but about race and empire: it shocks, it cries out to be told. And South African company Isango Ensemble Production tell it with visceral power at the Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre in SS Mendi: Dancing the Death Drill, a co-production with Nuffield Southampton Theatres.

Isango Ensemble © The Other Richard
Isango Ensemble
© The Other Richard

To paraphrase a popular mis-quotation of Star Trek: It’s opera, Jim, but not as we know it. For sure, this is storytelling through words, music, staging, movement and, above all, the power of the unamplified human voice. But the style is poles apart from the Verdi and Gounod being played upstairs. There’s no curtain and no orchestra: 21 cast members, clad in uniform grey, continually shift between acting, dancing, singing, foley art and playing a variety of percussion instruments, both proper and ad hoc, untuned apart from the eight marimbas. It’s the sheer power of the voices that stuns you: when 16 of them start up on the unmistakably African multi-part choral music, their pianissimi are so focused as to penetrate you deeply and the fortissimi knock you backwards and sideways.

The SS Mendi of the title was a troop ship taking black South African “volunteers” to assist the British army on the Western front. She was sunk accidentally by another ship, the SS Darro, three times her size and travelling at reckless speed in fear of the U-boats. What makes the story horrific is not so much the sinking itself as the fact that the Darro made no attempt to help the shipwrecked and, indeed, the Mendi had been hopelessly underprovisioned with lifeboats. Secondly, the South Africans were there under the false pretence that they had been signed up (forcibly or not) to fight, whereas the whites had no intention of giving them anything other than menial tasks such as digging and cleaning in upholding the “principle” that a black man may not fire on a white man.

Thobile Dyasi, Nolubabalo Mdayi, Thandolwethu Mzembe © The Other Richard
Thobile Dyasi, Nolubabalo Mdayi, Thandolwethu Mzembe
© The Other Richard

The “Death drill” of the title is the imagined telling of their story by the dead victims. The greatest impact is made by the sheer vocal intensity of an African choir of this quality: it’s not a sound that we hear every day in London, and we are the poorer for it. But there is other storytelling genius at work, from carefully choreographed movement through to finely characterised individual portrayals. The programme notes deliberately blur who sings which characters, but I’ll single out Nolubabalo Mdayi whose extraordinary voice, representing the ship herself, soars high above the wash of dialogue and percussion.

The extreme racism of the whites is portrayed chillingly, not least by Jack Ellis, the one white member of the cast, who plays the cynically violent sergeant, a brute in the fine tradition of sadistic army NCOs. Author Fred Khumalo gives him a series of shocking lines, from “we have the right to expect you to volunteer” to “you kaffirs are all the same” and worse. Perhaps the most excoriating scene shows the sergeant forcing one of the blacks to lick the deck clean, in a piece of deliberate, gratuitous humiliation.

Jack Ellis, Mandisi Dyantyis, Nolubabalo Mdayi, Ayanda Tikolo, Thobile Dyasi © The Other Richard
Jack Ellis, Mandisi Dyantyis, Nolubabalo Mdayi, Ayanda Tikolo, Thobile Dyasi
© The Other Richard

The script doesn’t duck some of the problems created by the blacks for themselves: the boy who is hounded to suicide by the superstitious belief that he will bring ill luck on the voyage, the inter-tribal squabbling spilling over into violence. But it is clear that these problems are side shows compared to the oppression of the white masters, and the ending – which I won’t spoil – succeeds in shocking us when we thought we’d been through all the shock we could take.

SS Mendi isn't a perfect show. There isn't really enough material for the slow build-up, and the ship becomes decidedly becalmed for long stretches. Some of musical choices chime oddly: it's hard to imagine that black tribesmen would have willingly sung white men's ditties like Danny Boy or It's a long way to Tipperary. But for anyone whose rose-tinted glasses still permit them to view the British Empire as a “civilising mission”, this should be required viewing (along with Sathnam Sanghera’s recent Channel 4 documentary on the 1919 Amritsar massacre, which is cut from the same cloth). But an equally good reason to see it is to expand your horizons as to what opera can be (call it “lyric theatre” like the French, if you prefer). Seeing musical artistry of this calibre in a singing style so unfamiliar to us is a rare treat.