Born on the same day in former Rhodesia Stuart (Gerry McLaughlin) and Chinua (Chris Jack) are lifelong friends despite being of different race. They tell tales of familial prejudice, the corrosive effect of propaganda and the terrors of being teenage soldiers. In his cups Stuart recounts the day he met, and had the opportunity to assassinate, Robert Mugabe.
Come as You Are Northwest specialise in Documentary Theatre- telling factual stories from the point of view of those involved. With Mugabeland! the documentary element has priority over the drama and , at times, it feels like the audience is being lectured rather than provoked or challenged.
Justin MacGregor (who also directs) is a verbose writer and fills the play with lengthy speeches. A certain amount of exposition in inevitable in documentary style plays but MacGregor goes beyond communicating the necessary background information and spells out verbally characterisation and motivation that would be better conveyed by the actors or action sequences in the play.
MacGregor acknowledges his shortcomings; Stuart, whose speeches dominate the play, is said to be something of a bore able to talk for ages without regard for his listeners. But to admit to a problem does not resolve the issue. With such long speeches it becomes hard to concentrate enough to distinguish the trivial from the profound. The author does not conceal that he lifted the central point of the play – the corrupting effect of power- from Heart of Darkness but does not trust the audience to spot the clues to his literary influences (the name of the bartender is Joe Conrad) and actually summarises the plot of the book as the play progresses.
The style of the play places limitations on the performances. Chris Jack ‘s cheerful approach is a relief in a play that takes itself very seriously and Gerry McLaughlin brings suitable gravity to his role but it is hard not to see the cast as the writer in disguise.
A play that threatens to become ponderous is rescued by MacGregor’s highly imaginative staging. The stories are delivered with the cast surrounded by a Djembe drum circle comprising drummers, percussionist and flutist who contribute powerful pounding rhythms dressed in Joanna Mason’s bright tribal costumes. The effect is both exciting and intoxicating. It is a stirring reminder of the ability of the human spirit to survive atrocities. More drumming and less talking and the play might have been better.
It may be unfair to criticise a play that sets out to convey factual information for lacking drama but in trying so very hard to be sure the audience has the necessary information the producers run the risk of making Mugabeland! worthy but a bit dull.
- Dave Cunningham