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Big Dada: The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin

Brett Bailey
Third World Bunfight
Barbican Pit
(2001)

Third World Bunfight who have produced this play about one dictator, the Butcher of Africa, Idi Amin have given it a contemporary meaning by dedicating it to Robert Mugabe. The obvious implication is that Mugabe is the spiritual son of Amin.

On a simple set that often looks like a series of Pop Art exhibits, the actors use their skills as well as some childlike props that look home-made to show the life of one of the greatest tyrants of the last century. This is a man who killed five people an hour throughout the 99 months of his reign. After seeing this company in action you can understand how and feel a little of what it must have been like to live in Uganda in the 1970s.

This very entertaining play mixes many different theatrical styles with a biased biography of Amin and a plethora of ideas, in some ways too many. It often looks like a cartoon thus capturing the absurdity of a man who ignored many of the rules of morality. The company manages to lighten the mood with music and song that varies from a male Madonna through a lullaby of terror and death to the finale as Idi follows up Sid Vicious with a bad man's "My Way".

This man who took over his country in a coup against Milton Obote is portrayed as a charming tyrant. While he had no education, he was driven to succeed and describes himself as not so much a thinking president as an Action Man. He was not completely bereft of diplomacy as he married four wives, one from each of the main tribes of Uganda.

Amin also charmed the two most powerful women of his time, the Queen and Golda Meir of Israel. These two are beautifully satirised as they spout hypocrisies while holding symbolic teacup and bagel respectively. The decision by Britain to refuse entry to the displaced Asians is given incredible impact as the Queen is shown dissembling in bloodstained shoes. This is echoed later as we see the Butcher of Africa in a bloodied apron - strong stuff.

His rise is shown in a series of tableaux accompanied by African singing and dancing from an excellent ensemble cast led by their star, Sello Sebotsane as the Amin. He is variously symbolised by a series of animals: this is the Lion of Africa and also its bull and crocodile.

While the rise is pretty cheerful stuff, the fall is really chilling. The scenes where Amin drives all Asians from the country, nationalising their assets are frightening. They pale into insignificance when we see him turning on his people, executing thousands and accusing his former supporters of conspiracy. The effect is heightened by the failure of the company to be restricted by the stage. They wield clubs amongst the audience as their leader declaims from a bank of microphones.

As if this is not enough, the play moves to its close as the mad dictator starts to eat his enemies prior to his escape to Saudi Arabia via Libya. To this day, it is possible that there is a 75 year old Ugandan living in Saudi Arabia remembering the good times.

The play loses focus a little as Amin descends into madness towards the end and might have been better for fiercer editing. Even so, it is on one hand chilling and gripping and on the other great fun. The imagination, artistry and allusive style of Brett Bailey and Third World Bunfight is really special and this is a rich night of theatre.

Philip Fisher