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Burn My Heart

Adapted by Rina Vergano from the novel by Beverley Naidoo
Trestle Unmasked with Blindeye
New Diorama Theatre and touring
(2010)

Burn My Heart production photo

Most British people would have to be pensioners to remember the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya in the 1950s for it is one of those bits of our history that is conveniently been swept under the carpet. Burn My Heart is a disturbing reminder not only of that particular conflict but of the attitudes of many colonialists in the days of empire.

The Mau Mau were a movement, organised as an oath-taking secret society, that fought for Kenyan independence and the restoration of land to the native people. The colonial powers called them terrorists; they called themselves the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA). The play is not the story of the uprising, nor a presentation of the argument. It is the story of Matthew, the son of a white settler farmer, and kitchen boy Mugo, the son of the man who looks after the farmer's horses and whose family's land this farm once was. The two are friends and we see things in their terms, not those of colonialist politics, though the impact on the friends is in microcosm the impact on the country and its people.

Matthew's father, Mr Grayson, treats his workers well. But is that enough? The local colonial police chief has a very different attitude to the indigenous population and through him we see the mind-cast that led to British concentration camps, torture and more than 1,100 judicial executions. When his son comes to stay on the Grayson farm with his own ideas of blood-brotherhood, he unsettles the boy's relationship.

This is a story of fears, loyalties and betrayals across and on both sides of the racial divide and is movingly and grippingly presented by a team of actors who play many parts between them.

Director Oliver Jones aims at a composite theatricality with John Purkis' atmospheric lighting, design by Anoushka Athique that provides a set that, by moving a prop or piece of cloth can be everything from a stream to cross or a car to drive, to the shadow play of an oath-taking ritual These are supported by Juwan Ogungbe's music which ranges from traditional Christian hymns to haunting woodwind and drumming feet, and there is a touch of extra veracity by having some of the dialogue in Kikuyu .

The cast of Burn My Heart is led by Kikuyu actress Lydiah Gitachu as Mugo with Lowri James as Matthew, Géhane Strehler as the policeman's son, Sam Parks as Mr Grayson and Christian Dixon as Mugo's father Kamau, but they all play many other roles. With a turn upstage, the donning of a jacket, tucking a shirt into shorts or a blanket swept across the shoulders they change sex, age or colour so that the stage is peopled with gossiping colonial wives, Mugo's brother and other relations, the boys' mothers, Mau Mau members and more policemen. Dixon, for instance, is not only Kamou but his white persecutor and the farm's female cook. Once it has been established that actresses are playing boys, and that is not immediately obvious, these skilled performers leave you in no doubt what character they have become.

In some ways this colour-blind casting is a heartening demonstration of how far our attitudes have changed since the time in which this play is set - but hang on, it has taken fifty years and, despite the setting, this could too easily be a contemporary story. In the 1950s the British media spoke of whites being massacred (any death is tragic but in fact only 32 settlers were killed by the rebels) while the bloodshed at British hands and of Kikuyu by Kikuyu amounted to many thousands, with 150,000 of the so-called terrorists put in prison. Have we really changed our perspective?

However, effective as Burn My Heart may be as a salutary warning that makes you want to know more about the past and question the present - and that is a good reason for mounting the production - it is its success as a piece of theatre, packing so much into only 70 minutes, that makes this a show worth seeing

At the New Diorama until 2nd October. For tour dates until 13th November 2010 see www.trestle.org.uk/pl272venues.html

Reviewer: Howard Loxton