The Last King of Scotland
The play opens with an explosion of energy, brilliant costumes and ululation as the people of Uganda gather to celebrate the overthrow of Milton Obote and accession of Idi Amin Dada as President.
Amin takes to the podium and begins to reveal the charismatic, power hungry, intimidating presence that will dominate Uganda for the following eight years and lead to repression, civil war and the death of half a million Ugandans.
Steve Waters’s adaptation of Giles Foden’s 1998 novel is the first for the stage and remains true to the original. Much is revealed about Amin through his relationship with the Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, who is drafted in to tend a minor injury and becomes a reluctant intimate who somehow manages to cope with Amin’s terrifying mood swings, irrationality and paranoia.
Amin, who becomes known as ‘the Butcher of Uganda’, is superbly performed by Tobi Bamtefa, who has a convincing physical presence and does justice to the complexity of the character, particularly strong in bullying and tyrannical mode, but also in less characteristic dependent and self-pitying episodes fuelled by hypochondria. His wives and courtiers live in constant fear of his reactions because they are illogical and impossible to anticipate.
As the lowly and unimportant doctor who has fallen in love with Uganda and its people, Daniel Portman has a part of even greater psychological complexity. He is catapulted into a role of influence which he is hardly qualified to occupy. He survives his relationship with Amin though increasingly trapped in it and seems oblivious to the mayhem going on in the country. Portman’s motivation is not sufficiently clear. Why does he stay? Is he seduced by the influence he has over Amin and the politicians that surround him? Does he admire Amin in some way and enjoy the close if dangerous relationship with a man of power? Finally he has no choice but to stay.
The relationship between Amin and Garrigan is the fulcrum of the play, but there are other roles of significance which are very well performed. Akuc Bol is Amin’s maltreated wife, who knows her husband’s nature and lives on a knife edge. Bol brings sensitivity and depth of characterisation to the role and stoicism in adversity. As the Ugandan doctor John Omole’s character undergoes a transformation as the play proceeds and the storm clouds gather around him.
The British Ambassador and his wife played by Peter Hamilton Dyer and Eva-Jane Willis along with Mark Oosterveen as the diplomat effectively represent the post colonial experience under tyrannical rule, and a dignified Hussina Raja the forcible removal of the entrepreneurial Indian minority in the early days of Amin’s rule.
The visual aspects of the production are impressive. Designer Rebecca Brower provides a simple adaptable set enlivened by projections which create a variety of different venues, some internal, some public and others revealing the beauty of the Ugandan landscape. Live videos accompany reports by journalists and other factual information is presented as projected images.
The costume design is a delight throughout, especially the style and brilliant patterns of traditional Ugandan clothing but also the elegant designer dresses worn at official functions.
It is sometimes difficult to hear everything spoken in the predominant Scottish and Ugandan accents, so some passages of interest are lost. But the whole cast, including four actors from the Sheffield People’s Theatre, perform with enormous energy and commitment. It is impressive to see a performance which provides an opportunity for actors of colour to display their personal talents and celebrate the culture represented in the play.
Reviewer: Velda Harris