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> > > Amandla! by Freewheelers Theatre Company

Amandla! (power to the people) written and directed by Chris Haydon tells the life story of Nelson Mandela. It was performed by Freewheelers Theatre Company at Leatherhead Theatre in Surrey on 3 December. ‘Poppy’ delivers an audience-member’s review.

A photograph of Freewheelers Theatre Company's Amandla! featuring a group of performers all dressed in black and seemingly dancing, some standing, others in wheelchairs.

Freewheelers Theatre Company performers, moving gracefully © Ava de Souza.

Amandla! was an astounding tour de force. The Mandela story is one of the greatest stories of triumph over adversity of our time. In parallel, we witnessed dedicated young actors and their team of tutors crush the perceived adversity of disability to a pulp, with talent, commitment and determination displayed by the whole team.

Between them, they demonstrated several simple and contemporary theatrical devices which gave particular punch to the story: the seated ‘chorus’ and solo cast members on each side of the stage; the use of minimal props, such as the long poles to define division and direction; the ribbon ‘blood’; the back projection and the use of real life film all helped to enrich the experience.

The scene was set and then on came Krune (Brandon McGuire) a stark, lonely, impressive figure who, with beautifully clear voice, went on with the narrator, (Sam Keelan) to lead us through the story. The three Mandelas had giant responsibilities in every sense. The Spirit Mandela (Richard Watson) gave a lovely and focused reading of the energy of the man’s inner vibrancy, while the performance by Ashley Phillips as the Young Mandela expressed the agility and clarity of mind, the commitment and utter bravery of the man.

This brings us to the Older Mandela and the particularly moving performance by Terri Winchester who managed to express both the personal struggle and absolute dignity of our hero. All three coalesced to create the Mandela the world came to know and love.

Ems Dooley as Winnie Mandela conveyed a really poignant and memorable character. She encapsulated the unimaginable trials and struggles of Winnie and her kind. There was an almost palpable sense of achievement and triumph in the way Winnie was presented.

A group of performers in Freewheelers Theatre Company's Amandla! They are wearing t-shirts featuring the show's title and are raising their fists in salute

The performers give a salute © Ava de Souza

The film interludes featuring Gabrielle Thorpe were so powerful that they are almost indescribable. The simplicity of the theatrical device used was surpassed only by the stark simplicity and anguish of her story. It was a real privilege to hear directly from someone who had been deeply involved and who was actually here in the theatre among us. It was an intoxicating experience to those of us watching the play.

I wish I could give as detailed a comment on each of the other performers, however, this was a team effort and that came across very strongly. Each individual was totally engaged, involved in both choral speech, small individual parts, dancing and movement. The sight of ‘dancing’ wheelchairs will live long in my memory.

Simplicity in all things seemed to be the ethos of this production and it was hugely effective. The representational costume, the symbolic use of props all combined to give a really convincing and enjoyable evening of theatre. If I have a small criticism, it is that the lighting was sometimes a little dim. I would like to have seen the faces of the actors a little more clearly. I sometimes found myself struggling to decide whether there was an off-stage voice or an onstage actor speaking. The end colour effects, however, were very lovely and conveyed the colourful society that South Africa is now developing.

The musicians too were wonderful.  Having lived for a short time in West Africa, I particularly enjoyed all the drumming.  There is nothing to compare with the magic of hearing the drums across the ‘bush’ in the darkness of the African night. Here it was, in Leatherhead!!

Two others I have not mentioned are the BSL Interpreter Marion Quemby who, with the surtitler Bob Colvill, worked tirelessly through the performance to ensure that this was a truly inclusive piece of theatre.

The final choral piece with it shouts of “Freedom” and “Amandla!” brought the audience to its feet. It was a tremendously moving experience and I had difficulty in seeing my way clearly out of the theatre. I was suffering from what the Victorians might have described as ‘moist eyes’.

For further information on Freewheelers Theatre Company and for future performances visit their website.