After Independence at Arcola, E8

reviewed for The Times, 10th May 2016

After Independence at Arcola, E8

Image credit- Richard Lakos

Screen Shot 2015-12-31 at 13.05.12

British audiences remember the Zimbabwean land crisis of the early 2000s from a steady diet of predictable TV images. Embattled white farmers, loss and pride etched in their faces, facing down gangs of Robert Mugabe’s thugs. Zanu-PF told a different story about these suspiciously young “veterans” of Zimbabwe’s decades-past war of liberation, righting a century of racial injustice. Yet in a debut of astonishing maturity, the British-Zambian writer May Sumbwanyambe takes us far beyond any of these easy narratives, diffracting hackneyed questions of race, justice and revenge into a subtle family drama.

When his daughter was born, about 20 years ago, Guy planted an acacia tree in her honour and gave her an African name, Chipo. Guy (Peter Guinness) is the fourth generation to farm his land, once named Independence in the spirit of colonial entrepreneurship; Chipo (Beatriz Romilly) hopes to be the fifth. Now, however, they can either accept the paltry cheque from Mugabe’s land redistribution programme or wait for bush gangs to seize the farm instead.

Stefan Adegbola is outstanding as Charles, the government repo man trying to offer Guy a peaceful way out while nursing his own family’s experience of racialised suffering. Romilly’s Chipo gets lumbered with Sumbwanyambe’s few clichés but invests them with compelling dignity. The South African actress Sandra Duncan adds the most texture to a smaller role, as Chipo’s archly weary mother, Kathleen. “I never had independence, Chipo”, Kathleen sighs. “I married your father and everything that goes with him.”

George Turvey’s staging doesn’t always illuminate Sumbwanyambe’s more opaque stage directions. (How is Chipo spooked by a slight gesture from Charles?) Yet Christopher Nairne’s space-savvy lighting raises a bleak bush sunlight over Max Dorey’s set, both perfectly formed for the Arcola’s smaller studio. Sumbwanyambe, one hopes, will go on to larger-scale commissions. He is a rare discovery.