Far Gone

John Rwothomack
Roots Mbili Theatre and Sheffield Theatres
Crucible Studio

John Rwothomack as Okumu in Far Gone Credit: Smart Banda

Actor, director and writer, Ugandan born John Rwothomack, was instrumental in the foundation of the dynamic Roots Mbili Theatre in 2021. The company specialises in cross-cultural collaborative work which is performed in national and international contexts.

In Far Gone, he focuses on a lived childhood experience when, at 8 years old, he was nearly kidnapped from his home by the rebel group the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) led by the notorious Joseph Kony. He has turned this into a "profoundly moving play for one actor which tells the story of a young boy’s journey from childhood innocence to child soldier."

The action of the play encompasses horrors that we have heard reported on the news: young boys abducted from their homes never to meet their parents again; young girls abducted to become the ‘brides’ of much older, violent mercenaries; youths desensitised by witnessing acts of extreme cruelty, trained in the use of modern weapons and forced to commit atrocities themselves; traumatic experiences that will not be expunged in a lifetime.

The nature of the one-actor show means that only one character can be seen or heard speaking at one time. When we watch a savage attack, we watch one participant at a time, either the perpetrator or the victim. The actor allows a short pause to move from one position to another, which gives the audience a moment to reflect on what is being presented. A distancing strategy not unlike those in Brecht’s work.

The action of the play is expressed through convincingly performed mime accompanied by speech. The only props we see are the whipping toy used to introduce the action and two significant photos. The guns and knives mentioned in the script are imagined by the actor and the audience, as are the acts of violence. Sound effects occasionally add gunfire or distant cries of anguish.

Director Mojisola Elufowoju tells us that she took inspiration from African oral storytelling traditions to determine the style of the production. Consequently, the action is in-the-round and invites audience response, the set is a simple painted circle on the floor to represent sun-baked earth and a central prayer tree of hanging strips which overshadows the space.

The mime style of the performance is distinctly different from European equivalents drawn from Commedia del’Arte, plainer and more realistic. An important sequence in the script introduces a ghost drawn from Ugandan folk culture who must be placated at death but revenged before he can find rest.

Rwothomack’s performance is a tour de force. He appears only in a sarong, which serves for every character he represents. He finds at least three vocal levels: a high-pitched breathy tone for the very young; something more substantial for an older child; and a full-throated, powerful bass for Joseph Kony.

Given the seriousness of the subject matter, he starts with playfulness, trying to get members of the incoming audience to compete with him in spinning a wooden top and others "to come with me on a journey, a story, will you come with me? Thank you." He also sets up audience participation, which will become relevant as the story enters a much more serious phase.

The theatre’s publicity describes this as a profoundly moving play. I agree completely. It is a wonderful team effort fronted by a charming, charismatic, skilful, talented actor.

Reviewer: Velda Harris

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