“Theatre’s greatest asset, its capacity to surprise and to shock you with your own stupidity, was never more in evidence.” – The Guardian
A few weeks ago, I was invited to London by the BBC as one of the winners of its 25th International Playwriting Competition – the Georgi Markov Prize. There, I met Nadine Patel, Programme Manager for sub Saharan Africa: Arts, Theatre and Dance at the British Council, who introduced me to British theatre, where I had the opportunity to see several plays.
For me, the beauty of British theatre is the passion with which it upholds high quality production. My first visit to a theatre in the capital was the Young Vic near Waterloo, where I watched A Man of Good Hope. It is the true story of one refugee’s epic quest across Africa, which was brought to life with music from world renowned Isango ensemble. This mouthwatering drama pitched with great choreography, matching costumes and gripping dialogue, showed me the lushness of modern British theatre. This drama was a demonstration of a paradigm shift – how African actors have invaded British theatre with a modern touch.
Oil at the Almeida Theatre in Islington was captivating, it followed the lives of a woman and her daughter in an epic, hurtling crash of empire, history and family. Though watching the main character when she was scantily dressed or stripped naked in the first few scenes was not easy for me. I could hear my mother and aunties warning me not to look at naked people, especially women, since it was disrespectful to the human body. At that moment, I came to the realisation that I was at a point of a clash in culture.
British theatre is booming in comparison to Uganda. The upper-middle classes can afford the high price of tickets there. In Uganda people rarely sacrifice such money to watch a theatre play – it is simply unaffordable. No wonder, they prefer to watch school performances produced by students which are mostly scripts adapted from set school texts for literature. Rarely is an original play produced.
Ugandan theatre faces a long time problem of funding. The cost of production is too high – to rent the National Theatre for just one hour costs at least two-hundred British pounds – which is about shs1,000,000. This has stalled some of the most exciting theatre productions in Uganda, which never see the limelight.
In Uganda there is a need to showcase an alternative theatre, and move away from the traditional plays we have long been watching. These are collapsing under the weight of substandard productions – mostly made up of standup comedians who confuse drama with comedy. Most plays still represent the formal scripted theatre performed on a proscenium arch stage of the main auditorium. We must maintain our traditional originality, which is vital, but diverting from the assumed settings of the past is absolutely necessary.
With such monotony, creativity will continue to shout its throat sore until we get a direct intervention. But there is some hope, for instance, theatre company, Fun Factory, which has been centre-stage recently. It is where middle-class Ugandans go to relieve themselves from the stress of work, and where people retreat for fun, or to rest from the boredom of substandard theatre productions.
Erupu Jude is the winner of the 25th BBC International Radio Playwriting Competition in the Georgi Markov category for his play Darkness at Dawn. He was born in the North-Eastern Uganda Region. He is a teacher by profession, and is currently studying an MA in Development Studies at Uganda Martyrs University. He also works for the Watoto Childcare Ministries in Mpigi District, Uganda.
Darkness at Dawn is inspired by his experiences avoiding capture by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Lira. Writing is Jude’s way to honour the voices of the people he witnessed in the Internally Displaced Camps of Uganda.