One man’s patriot is another man’s traitor. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. We’ve become used to this contradiction in politics but the novel by Beverley Naidoo, now adapted into a play by Rina Vergano, shows how discontent with a colonial regime can also involve inter-factional dissent and lead to that nastiest of all conflicts – a civil war.
Burn my Heart takes place in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. Matthew is a young British boy, at ease with the country and able to move naturally in both British expatriate and Kikuyu society. His parents, the Graysons, are good if somewhat patriarchal employers. Matthew is friends with both Mugo, the son of his father’s head grrom, and with Lance, son of the area’s doctrinaire police chief.
Mugo’s father Kamau wants to keep faith with his employer, procure a proper education for his children and stay in tune with his people’s traditions. All this is threatened as the rising begins to bite. Director Oliver Jones incorporates ritual as well as African dance and harmonies into his production, which is given a framework of red soil-coloured floor cloths and a central watch-tower structure by designed Anoushka Athique. The flexibility works well.
There are five players, each taking several parts. Lowri Jmes makes a convincing boy as Matthew with [Géhane Strhler] doubling Lance and Mrs Grayson. Lydiah Gitachu is the dreadlocked Mugo, whose relationship with the white boys is so uneven and who speaks the essence of the play in the phrase which begins and ends it – “when you have to leave in a hurry, you can’t choose to take with you the thing which you love the best”.
Christian Dixon is equally credible as the loyal estate worker and the supercilious police chief, so unprepared to see anyone’s viewpoint outside his own narrow one, which works on the shoot-first principle. Sam Parksplays the land-owner with a conscience who doesn't really want to confront reality. Trust is such a tender plant; once broken it can never be revived.
That makes this story into a tragedy, one of ordinary people at an extraordinary time in a place of unexpected crossroads.