Not the least interesting feature of this fascinating and very funny play is that, had it been written by a white man, and was being performed now for the first time, it would almost certainly provoke outrage, threats of legal action, picketing of the theatre and the like. There would be screams about racist stereotypes and the wickedness of the apparent assumption that black people running their own affairs for the first time in many generations would do so with a high level of self-interest.
As it is, however, this high velocity, high volume two and a quarter hours of superbly crafted argument, aggression and evasion, is accompanied by shouts of hilarity from a racially mixed audience and nobody minds in the least, recognising it for what it is –– high comedy which goes to the heart of a recognisably real, complex and difficult situation.
We are in Port of Spain, Trinidad during the late 1950sWe start in a tailoring shop, where Ramjohn Gookool (Jonathan Myers) is instructing Samuel in the aesthetics and tailoring techniques of gentlemen’s tropical suits. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that virtually every line spoken seems even funnier than its predecessor.
Ramjohn comes across as a frustrated craftsman/artist, Samuel as bored and discontented. All he really wants is for the impending period of carnival to get under way. He’s a wine, women and song man, himself and can work up little interest in creases and seams.
After we have laughed loudly but sympathetically at and with the two men, in come Miss Gookool (Melanie La Barrie). It is soon clear that for all the fact that Trinidadian men assume that they are, or ought to be, in charge of affairs, that Miss Gookool is the boss and will brook no opposition.
In broad terms, this opening act, much the longer of the two, is setting the scene and ambience for the second, which takes place in 1963, after Trinidad has gained independence. Samuel is now Commissioner of Police but, as the wife he has now acquired does not hesitate to point out, he appears to be powerless. All he has, it would seem is an office with a desk and a large picture of the prime minister. Why can he not arrange for his wife to have a chauffeur when she goes shopping?
The play, then, is a study of different kinds of powerlessness, and, by extension, of the ways in which political change of an apparently earth-shaking kind may, in a small society with little economic clout, seem to make very little difference.
As the blurb on the new edition of the script, published to coincide with this production (the first major revival since it was done at the Royal Court in 1974), justly remarks, is wickedly funny, exuberant and poignant. It is very curious to spend an evening on the company of people who are are fed up with each other and are disappointed with how little apparently revolutionary political changes have improved their actual situation, whilst rejoicing that at least they are now, kind of, in charge.
One day, perhaps, you feel Matura was saying, things will change, and the Trinidadians will be their own masters and be able to live, and be responsible for, their own lives.
Don’t miss this. That’s an order.
- By Mustapha Matura
- Directed by Paulette Randall
- Cast includes Johann Myers, Seun Shote, Melanie La Barrie, Victor Romero Evans, David Monteith, Llewella Gideon, and Lorie Barker
- Orange Tree Theatre, London
- Until April 11 2015
- Review by Tom Aitken
- 14 March 2015