With Africker dramatist Syborn has tried to do something very difficult: to encapsulate a quarter century of African history that to take his audience from the death of David Livingston in 1874 to the Boer War in 1901, encompassing the European fight for bits of Africa and the effect of that on the Africans as well as echoes in more recent times and on other continents - and to pack it all into a two hour entertainment.
He doesn't quite pull it off but with Kate O'Connor's lively production, a hard working, enthusiastic cast and some fantastic animal-featured headdresses he goes a long way towards succeeding.
In a programme note he says, "Africker is designed to reproduce the feeling, not the facts, of history" and "dates blur, names blur, identities blur what is left is the impression." That is certainly true of this performance. We are deluged with information (some known, much not), images to interpret, ideas to grasp hold of: they do blur and they do leave an impression.
Writing this some hours later facts and moments still revolve inside my brain: the treatment of Livingston's African servants who lovingly brought his body back to Britain, the Europeans refusal to accept the splendours of Zimbabwe as African, the treatment of Boer women and children in British concentration camps. In the theatre, though, you can't select as you can in memory, your brain is busy coping with the deluge of information, trying to identify the characters from a drag Queen Victoria to a black King Leopold of Belgium, Bismark, General Gordon, Kitchener, Gladstone and the voice of all those unheard ghosts that this cast of six plus pianist put before us.
In some other genre, cabaret perhaps, you could allow attention to slip in and out but with a play you need to give it all attention, and I have to confess there were moments when I couldn't take the barrage and my brain shut down. With an author character set up with a table and a whole pile of research resources on one side of the stage in place of this old music hall's MC, delivering this very elaborately illustrated lecture you feel particularly guilty at any lapse from sitting up and paying attention! I got totally lost as to why at one point characters started using American accents, though I think it may have been to offer contemporary parallels.
There is some very effective repetition of certain themes: Belgium's Leopold describing actions that amounted to near genocide as "liberal intervention" or a "humanitarian mission", for instance. Sharp one-liners cut home: "We have to defend democracy: my kind of democracy!" "Are the children suffering - they will be." "Africa is a woman, cheat her with promises." "We believe in anything except our responsibility to others." Perhaps my favourite the British, following a massive defeat by Zulus, described as suffering from post-Natal depression.
To a certain extent I felt I was being lectured, even preached at. I don't mind that - it is all in the theatrical remit - but there is just too much going on. However you can't dislike a show that has Queen Victoria make a first entrance as a bare leg in red high heels or a back man in white gloves parodying coon blackface. It already punches hard but giving a general bruising. Africker needs to give occasional respite from the barrage of information, perhaps some less demanding numbers, to make it easier for audiences to handle. "The great rule of theatre: always underestimate your audience," we are told at one point. I felt this overestimated my capabilities!
Casting is not identified but it is performed by the hard-working team of Jessica Barker-Wren, Jacob Fortune, Harriet Green, Tor Lupton, Jude Owusu, Tom Ross-Williams and Lucy Wray.
Until 27th March 2011
Reviewer: Howard Loxton