Following on from their hit trilogy of soldiers’ stories, Come As You Arts Northwest returns with the next play in their series about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
The musicians of Denifari welcome you to the stage of the Lowry Studio with their infectious enthusiasm and uplifting sound. The beat of drums backed with the melodic flute and the lively dancing act as a living, breathing and authentic backdrop to the story that follows.
Meeting in a bar, Rhodesian Stuart (Gerry McLaughlin) meets writer Joe (Liam Tims) and unfolds his remarkable life story. From growing up with his black childhood friend Chinua (Chris Jack) through to his fateful encounter where he could have executed Mugabe, it is an astonishing tale – and true story.
But is it a story? This key dichotomy of what is truth and good vs. evil is what frames a unique encounter between a displaced Rhodesian and tyrannical President Robert Mugabe. Writer and Director Justin MacGregor acknowledges the scepticism that we all might have about the truth of this story and weaves it into a narrative that whilst at times is remarkably engaging, is also limited by its choice of style.
The documentary style that Come As You Arts are known for is evident in the many facts and figures to back up the drama. But at times it can be difficult to process the horror these extraordinary people find themselves in. At two hours long without an interval, it can be wearing at times, especially when it feels like you are being taken out of the drama and being spoken to, rather than at. Whilst there are notable parallels with Heart of Darkness that power corrupts, the subtlety of such parallels are lost – the bartender is called ‘Joe Conrad’ for example.
This said, it is a wholly unique experience, and something of the like that I haven’t seen in some time. The colourful and cheerful drummers demonstrate the spirit of human resilience more so than the plot of the play, and provide a credence and authenticity that is sometimes lacking from the on-stage action.
Mugabeland! desperately wants to be a tale of shades of grey, but at times is still all black and white. Jane Allighan and Stephanie Hutchinson appear as Stuart and Chinua’s parents in a particularly notable scene that does introduce shades of grey as you realise that despite all their supposed ‘differences’ – they are actually remarkably similar.
McLaughlin dominates the performance as Stuart and works hard to bring to life with some lengthy speeches. His relationship with Debs (Jane Purcell) inspires a whole new kind of revolution within her which both actors work hard to convey.
This doesn’t mean I disliked Mugabeland! – far from it. It is an interesting tale about a situation I am barely familiar with. It does challenge you to judge where Mugabe’s actions stand on the basis of the information presented to you. And the inclusion of the Djembe drumming and dancing brings an innovative voice to proceedings. It just falters in presenting too much fact and not enough feeling to make you wholly appreciative of events. For many though, the emotionally concluding moments may override any reservations you might have.
The Fiction Stroker gives Mugabeland! three strokes out of five:
Mugabeland! is on in The Lowry studio until Saturday 18 May.