Whether by intent or design, the Gate Theatre’s latest production, The Rise and Shine of Comrade Fiasco manages to evoke the feeling of being trapped in a prison cell – only as an audience we are neither terrified nor mesmerised – just bored – shitless; despite the valiant efforts of the cast, this play falls flat on just about every level – as theatre at least. Commendable is the fortitude of the cast in gamely playing their parts as Chidinma, Febi and Jungle, three odd sort, being held in prison after a brawl – and the mysterious, Fiasco, who appears in their cell claiming to be a freedom fighter who has spent many years hiding in a mountain cave, unaware Zimbabwe is finally free from British colonial rule. As the cellmates attempt to piece together his story, they confront their own memories and we are told, ultimately push us and them, to ask what is the true value of liberation? Problem is – the answer never comes, and the question is torturously phrased. Kurt Egyiawan as Chidinma, plays his role with a fiery intelligence and intensity; Gary Beadle (Jungle) and Joan Iyiola (Febi) both impress with their physicality and dexterity in switching from character to character in the vignettes that make up the play; Abdul Salis (Fiasco) delivers his role as the eponymous lead with greater forbearance, given the more or less absolute black hole that exists at the heart of this play in terms of dramatic motivation.
Comrade Fiasco asks some deeply pertinent questions, grappling with the weight of history on ordinary people and participants, but in its effort to stay true to Zimbabwean history it often descends into obscurantism. That said, the play is not without its redeeming qualities. When Gary Beadle as Jungle describes History to Febi (Joan Iyiola) “as literally a black hole” that they both proceed to step into, we can almost glimpse the humorous bewilderment and anger that many disappointed veterans of Zimbabwe’s struggle must feel; when Kurt Egyiawan (Chidinma) eventually kills the co-prisoner he believes to be a traitor, we reach an emotional intensity that is elsewhere lacking in this play. Whaley’s play taps into the Zimbabwean tradition of the absurd and strange that peppers the work of writers like Marechera and Yvonne Vera, but perhaps such a style doesn’t translate so well to theatre. Certainly, Whaley has a gift for heightened language, often the dialogue, brings to mind the elaborate beauty of Wole Soyinka’s dialogue and prose – but the language serves no purpose; it rarely pushes the story forward, and even though the actors deliver their lines with panache, their fatigue with such ultimately uninspiring material seems palpable. What almost rescues this production are the moments of drama when the actors get a chance to take us on a journey; when the lead character narrates his own version of history, and we are suddenly thrown into a world of guerrilla camps, and battles for the soul of Zimbabwe, very briefly, the play comes alive with the unity, of language, drama and catharsis. But this is a rare moment, there are frequent glimpses of what could have been but Whaley’s writing never takes on the real journey – though competently directed, perhaps there should have been a braver gutting of the raw material, because despite the good acting, nothing could save this production from being a disappointing, obscurantist survey of history, and an ultimately unfulfilling night out.
Dele Meiji Fatunla is editor of What’s On Africa