Friday, August 07, 2009

The Observer

I saw The Observer at the National the other night. Two reasons for going: firstly that it's a new play about Africa, which is always of interest; and second that Joy Richardson (who played Olivia when our Twelfth Night went to Zimbabwe) is in it. Joy plays the mother of a young man who's been beaten up during a supposedly "free" election, for ferrying people to the polling station on his motorbike. The underlying point is that the people in the rural areas of this fictional African country (coyly un-named, but reminiscent of Zimbabwe, Kenya, Nigeria and even hinting at Ghana) are more likely to vote for "the leader of the opposition", and so become targets for the bullying tactics of "the President". What's interesting in the play is that the "democratic" opposition is the preferred candidate of the western powers in terms of trade, getting their hands on resources etc., and the altruistic heroine finds herself becoming their unconscious agent as she endeavours to get voters to register. The fact that her encouragement is concentrated in the rural areas also compromises the apparent objectivity of the international observer. It's intelligent, and at times very powerful - but I found it a bit Shavian, with the characters existing primarily to voice particular viewpoints, and the African voice being denied. Joy's big scene is wonderfully acted (of course), but it's almost entirely in Igbo, and so relies for its effect on her emotional performance, rather than on the articulation of viewpoint. The figure of the translator is, symbolically enough, the only African character who is explored in any depth, and his role as translator seems so specific that he only really exists to explain. It's difficult territory, of course. But it did make me feel that we're right to be looking to create our work through many different voices, rather than looking at ourselves looking at "the Other". There's a reason this play is called The Observer.

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