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  • Kate Gaul

Lose to Win

Updated: May 10

Lose to Win


Charismatic, playful, and skilled performer Mandela Mathia presents his own gripping history.  This is a story of a young Sudanese man’s journey to escape war, personal tragedy, and hardship to his adopted life in Australia.  Resilience, the power of dreams and some straight up luck are all at play here. Mandela Mathia has since prospered since his arrival here as a refugee, trained at NIDA and can boast that this is his second show on the magical Belvoir stage.

Essentially this is a solo performance, but Mandela is accompanied by Senegalese musician Yacou Mbya on a variety of percussion.  As the doors shut to the theatre Yacou drums on the landing and then down the aisle onto the stage. He warms up the audience as we engage in rhythmic clapping and hooting.  It’s fun.  Not the usual Belvoir fare!  This ebullience skilfully sets up the head-above-water optimism needed by refugees who face unimaginable adversity to survive.

Mandela grew up in civil war-torn Sudan. His nicknames were those of guns: Kalashnikov, AK-47 and more. His father was shot fleeing to save his family. Mandela was only a small child then, but the loss of a father casts a shadow over his story. His mother drowned in an overcrowded boat while seeking food for her starving family. The stories are heart breaking.  North Sudan, shoe shining, odd jobs, Egypt all fill this overfull life of a young man. More searing moments occur after his arrival in Australia as Mandela tells of people preferring to stand on a bus than sit beside him or of Dutton’s infamous dog-whistling over Melbourne’s Sudanese gangs.  It is sobering to have this vital, engaged artist describe the trauma of bigotry and racism in Australians as he experienced first-hand.  The generosity of his humour, the interspersed dance and song and the sheer life force of this performance salves.

Performed on a set by Keerthi Subramanyam (shared with another production “Nayika A Dancing Girl”) which is a quite beautiful string backdrop in front of which are the instruments and several suitcases and small hand props. Kate Baldwin lights this work with subtle changes.  Jessica Arthur directs and leans into the simplicity that makes this story shine. The partnership between director and actor began at NIDA and “Lose to Win” was originally presented at Old Fitz in 2022. It occasionally feels as if the production could do with more distinct changes in tone and delivery.  As a story of who we are and the rich make-up of our society this production more than makes up for any deficiency. Biography onstage is tough and can either become horribly confessional or trite. “Lose to Win” showcases Mandela and reminds us that we all meet forks in the road of life, and we can choose to be hateful and bitter of to embrace love as we find our way.

The content and production is a breath of fresh air in the Belvoir season and bodes well for future programming and building new mainstage audiences. You could say “Lose to Win” is a win-win.

Kate Gaul

(Image Brett Boardman)









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