Premiere of Mandela musical to be flagship for Young Vic in 2022

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<span>Photograph: Reuters File Photo/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters File Photo/Reuters

The world premiere of a musical about the “young, sexy, radical” early life of Nelson Mandela is coming to the Young Vic in London this autumn as the flagship production of a season that examines the theme of revolution, protest and its consequences.

The Young Vic’s artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, said the Mandela musical was not a “romantic rendition” of the political leader’s life but instead focused on the lead up to his imprisonment on Robben Island, where he spent most of his 27-year term as a political prisoner, and the impact it had on his family, and in particular his second wife, Winnie.

Kwei-Armah said: “Revolution isn’t cheap, it is really expensive on the soul, and I think for a generation who have grown up with activism at their core this is a really interesting reminder of the costs, and what we need to do to create a better world.”

Written by Laiona Michelle, who penned Little Girl Blue, a musical about the life of Nina Simone, and with songs from South African composers Shaun and Greg Dean Borowsky, Mandela was produced with the approval and collaboration of the political leader’s family and has been in the works for seven years.

His granddaughter Nandi Mandela said she hoped her grandfather’s story, “of a man from humble beginnings who pulled himself up by his bootstraps”, would resonate with audiences; while his great-grandson Luvuyo Madasa said he wanted people to see him “in a new light and recognise he was just a human being following his path”.

Kwei-Armah said the production came at a time when Mandela’s legacy was being debated in South Africa, with younger South Africans being split between seeing him as a “hero or somebody who let them down”. “It’s interesting because that theme runs right across the world right now. We can look at gen Z’s view of millennials,” he said.

Originally announced in 2019 as a forthcoming Broadway production, Mandela is now part of a new summer and autumn season at the Young Vic that Kwei-Armah hopes will give a younger generation, who have grown up with climate protests and the Black Lives Matter movement, an understanding of the price radicals have paid in the past.

“I’ve watched my children or young people they are now born into radicalism in a way that my generation was steered away from radicalism,” he said. “I think it’s important to not just see the headlines of what it is to be radical, but the cost to Mandela’s family, the cost to his relationship, the cost to his mental health.”

Other productions in the Young Vic season include an adaptation of Édouard Louis’ Who Killed My Father, which was described as “a bludgeoning critique of France’s treatment of its working class”. The acclaimed director Ivo van Hove will take charge, with the Dutch actor Hans Kesting performing the piece as a monologue. Kwei-Armah said the play would have renewed relevance after the French election where many of the issues discussed in the work, such as workers’ rights, treatment of the working class and snobbery, were driving an election in which the French political map appears to be completely redrawn.

Kwei-Armah said: “We’ve seen the rise of Trumpian America to Brexit Britain to a radicalised France. We’ve seen the effects I think of the last 10 years of economic rebellion.”

Chasing Hares, a new play from the award-winning playwright Sonali Bhattacharyya, will debut at the Young Vic and concerns the impact of globalisation as the play moves between West Bengal and the UK, while “satirical camp-comedy-horror” the Secretaries also features.

Since reopening fully after pandemic restrictions were lifted, Kwei-Armah has directed the Collaboration, which starred Paul Bettany as Andy Warhol and Jeremy Pope as Jean-Michel Basquiat, with a version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic musical Oklahoma! set to open at the Young Vic from the end of April. Mandela will open on 28 November and runs to 4 February 2023.

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