Brighton Fringe 2014
"The Revolution devours its children"
Those words were written by the Frenchman Jacques Mallet du Pan – as Robespierre, one of the original leaders of the French Revolution, was led to the guillotine after his faction lost out to a different group of revolutionaries. Former comrades can become bitter enemies.
‘The Rain That Washes’ is about children in the literal sense, too. Matthew and his friends Freeman and Good Leisure are young teenagers in White-ruled Rhodesia in the 1970s. It’s a one-man show, so we see all the characters through Matthew’s eyes, and he put on a policeman’s cap and a loud, sharp "Effrikaana" voice as he gave us an idea what Segregated life was like for a black person, and why the idea of ‘Freedom’ was so seductive.
" If you were to walk down the road to the train station, where it is forbidden for you to talk to any white woman – unless you know her, in which case you will address her as ‘Madam’. Now if a policeman such as myself stops you, you will immediately provide me with your identity card. Seeing as you are not in her township, you will provide me with a letter from your employer, explaining what business you have to do in our area. When you get to the train station, you will board the BLACKS ONLY carriage "
This is a very minimalist production, with just a large wooden trunk in the centre of the stage at The Marlborough, with a couple of suitcases stacked at the side. At the back there was an outline shape of Rhodesia, made up of a collage of pictures, posters and newspaper pages. As the play unfolded, Matthew used the two cases as props – now they were a bus seat, now a lectern to make a speech – but initially he piled them up, put a man’s soft hat on the top, and they became his Uncle.
I’ve always felt that theatre is the only really ‘grown-up’ medium. Film uses high technology and special effects to convince us we’re seeing reality – theatre simply gives us the cues and lets us create the scene inside our own heads. Chickenshed are very good at this, using the very basic staging alongside vivid lighting that drenched the space in green to give us the depths of a forest, or flashed white over stark blue backlights to create the panic and disorientation of a night-time security raid.
Powerful sound effects, too. This story is about a war of liberation, remember, a long and vicious guerrilla war; so we get hammered by the screaming roar of attacking fighter jets, and try to catch the crackly voices of rebel radio stations operating out of Angola or Botswana. Designers Yukiko Tsukamoto and Andrew Caddies took us back to 1970s Africa, and it felt – authentic.
Ashley Maynard looks to be in his thirties, with an incipient moustache and a slightly tubby physique that kept his shirt stretching apart between the buttons. This, and his constantly mobile face, allowed him to be a convincing teenager as he gave us very funny banter from the three boys as they headed south to Botswana to join the rebels. He’s seen Joshua Nkomo, the nationalist leader of ZAPU, speaking at a rally in Bulawayo, and when he meets him again in a rebel camp, awestruck and shy, Maynard did Nkomo’s rather breathless voice and laughter to become the man.
Matthew is sent to Angola, and later to Bulgaria to get a political education and military training. When he returns to Rhodesia it’s 1980, the war is over after a negotiated settlement, and there are elections for the new, majority-rule Zimbabwe. Matthew and his Uncle are canvassing for Joshua Nkomo and ZAPU, but there are threats and intimidation from Robert Mugabe’s ZANU party.
"The Revolution devours its children" Colonialism never cared about ‘the natives’, and when the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes drew up the borders of what he called ‘Rhodesia’ he managed to encompass two separate nations, the Ndebele tribe in Matabeleland in the south west, and the larger Shona tribe in the north. Mugabe’s Shona ZANU and Nkomo’s Ndebele ZAPU fought side by side to achieve liberation from white rule, but once in power the old tribal rivalries surfaced and Mugabe quickly usurped Nkomo, becoming the sole leader of Zimbabwe.
After friction between the two groups, and an insurgency among the Ndebele people, Robert Mugabe created an elite military unit, the Fifth Brigade, trained by North Korean instructors and answerable only to him. (Hitler’s paramilitary SS comes to mind). The Fifth Brigade acted with great brutality, crushing any opposition to Mugabe and reportedly killing up to twenty thousand civilians in Matabeleland. They referred to this operation as ‘Gukurahundi’ – ‘ The rain that washes away the chaff ‘, and the second half of the play deals with the horrors of this.
It’s become very fashionable to depict Robert Mugabe as a monster. I’m not an expert on Africa, and thankfully this isn’t the place to analyse politics, but it’s worth remembering the pressures the man is under. This was a war of liberation, and thousands of former freedom-fighters had been promised land under majority rule. These men were Mugabe’s supporters – they remained armed and needed to be kept on his side. Yet the majority of the best farming land remained in White hands (as late as 2006, 39% of farmland was held by just six thousand white farmers) who were constantly stirring up opposition to the government’s attempts at land redistribution. Similarly, the South African government, while it was still an apartheid regime, produced vast amounts of anti-Mugabe propaganda as well as carrying out destabilising acts of terrorism in Zimbabwe. I’m relieved that I don’t have to take sides – my job here is to tell you about the play.
"The Revolution devours its children" Chickenshed have decided to tell this story from the viewpoint of an innocent. We see Matthew first as a young teenager, then later as slightly older, but he remains at the mercy of events outside his control or understanding. Like most of us, he’s buffeted and swept along by the tides of events.
Ashley Maynard put on a gold-trimmed peaked cap to become President Mugabe, speaking from a lectern (two cases, again) about the need to strike at ‘snakes – cobras’, and then he donned a red beret to become a Fifth Brigade soldier, brutally interrogating Matthew during a house-to-house sweep for Nkomo supporters. Maynard brought out the terror in the young man, alternating this with the swaggering sense of power of the soldier. Flashing lights from behind, blue top-lighting picking out the hunched figure crouching on the ground, and deafening sounds of fists or boots hammering on the door – it was a terrifying experience that will stay with me for months.
In the closing scene, Matthew is told about hooded prisoners being brutally thrown down an abandoned mine shaft. One of them is his old schoolteacher – his academic knowledge powerless against the forces that the revolution has unleashed – and in a last horror, he’s given a hat that was left abandoned at the mineshaft edge … his Uncle’s hat.
There’s a final masterstroke of theatre at the very end – but I won’t spoil it for you by giving it away. You’ll just have to see director Kieran Fay’s great production for yourselves. I recommend that you do – it’s very powerful as theatre, but it also reminds us of an ongoing tragedy for which we British are ultimately largely responsible. I was sitting next to an Australian theatre director, over for Brighton Fringe, and her response was – "That’s what Fringe should be about; theatre to grip you and make you think".