REVIEW: The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal, until Sunday ***

Radiant: Kate Hampson’s Coppergate Woman sees the light in The Coppergate Woman. Picture: : Jane Hobson

THIS is the first York Theatre Royal community play in five years and, more significantly, the first since pandemic restrictions were lifted, although the cloud of Covic hangs all too heavy over Maureen Lennon’s storytelling drama.

There is a sense of relief that we can gather again, perform together, build plays from scratch with faces old and new, but The Coppergate Woman is not a drama suffused with joy until its finale’s promise of a post-apocalyptic green new world.

Such a vision is ushered in with composer and musical director Nicolas Lewis’s most upbeat song, hand claps and all, but given all that is going around us, from higher and higher temperatures to higher and higher living costs and fuel prices, it is sung on a wing and a prayer.

The harsh realities of these times have seen cast members pull out through not being able to afford the travel costs or having to commit to working extra shifts to make ends meet, and therefore no longer being available for the heavy rota of rehearsals.

Ancient meets modern in The Coppergate Woman at York Theatre Royal. Picture: Jane Hobson

That said, community spirit bursts out of the 90 performers and plentiful choir members, as they build on the legacy of Blood + Chocolate (on York’s streets in 2013), In Fog And Falling Snow (at the National Railway Museum in 2015) and Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes (by the Minster and at the Theatre Royal in 2017 ).

All three were rooted in York history, and so, to an extent, is The Coppergate Woman, albeit she is as much a woman of mystery as Viking history. Her bones were found in a shallow grave in an excavation by the River Foss and she has since lain encased in glass at Jorvik Viking Centre.

Research revealed she had moved to Jorvik (York) from either South-West Norway or northernmost Scotland, was robustly built, had a pronounced limp from a degenerative joint disorder, consumed a heap of herring in her lifetime and died at 46.

Hull playwright Maureen Lennon’s number one haunt as a child was Jorvik, where she was drawn to those bones and to the model of that woman in blue. Now she puts flesh on those bones, and after the choir, ensemble and assorted principals set the play in motion on Sara Perks’s open-plan, uncluttered set with a backdrop of David Callanan’s audio-visual designs, professional actor Kate Hampson’s Coppergate Woman emerges in her glass case in that familiar blue.

Breakout moment: Kate Hampson’s Coppergate Woman emerges in her glass case. Picture: Jane Hobson

She duly smashes the case – as denoted by the sound of breaking glass and accompanying visuals – and sets about smashing the scientific facts as she re-awakes in modern-day York, charged with uncovering the answers as to why we are where we are.

She was 44, she corrects with a smile, probably a weaver, and now certainly a weaver of stories. Now let’s get down to business. She will be the conduit between past and present in Lennon’s world of myth and modern reality, but first she sets the scene, with a humorous observant eye, one that made your reviewer crave for rather more of this then-and-now contrasting York detail.

Coppergate Woman comments with amusement on Jorvik Viking Centre’s infamous stinking smell, but then sniffs 2022 York air for the first time. It smells of metal, she says, chemicals and cleaned surfaces: a triple-whammy discomfiting reminder of pollution, climate change and Covid.

Later, reference is made to King’s Square now being the place of buskers: another wry observation that plays well to the home crowd filling the Theatre Royal auditorium.

Sigyn (Catherine Edge) catches venom to protect her imprisoned husband Loki (Edward Hammond). Picture: Jane Hobson

Past and present constantly interweave in Lennon’s dense construction as she asks: “In an ever-changing world, how do we hang on to who we are when the grounds are shifting beneath our feet? How do we look forward and rebuild, when the End Times feel ever more real?”

Coppergate Woman sheds the rudimentary clothing to be revealed as a Valkyrie, a shepherd of the dead and dying, a servant of Odin, whose duty is to guide lost souls to the halls of Valhalla. Why? Because Ragnarok is coming, “when the gods will perish, fire will triumph, and only then will the world will rise again, made anew”.

In other words, Hell on Earth is nothing new, as Lennon mirrors four stories of ghastly, grim, abominable Norse legend with torrid tales of toiling, struggling people in York today.

As old gods do battle with new, Lennon favours an epic scale for the past, the world of Odin (Paul Mayo Mason), Frigg (Jessica Murray), Baldr (Andy Williams), thunderous Thor (Andrew Isherwood), cunning Loki (Edward Hammond), wife Sigyn (Catherine Edge) and Fenrir, the wolf (portrayed by a swaying sextet of bodies, superbly choreographed by movement director Xolani Crabtree).

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster, left, and playwright Maureen Lennon with the model of the Coppergate Woman at Jorvik Viking Centre

Modern York’s stories are more in keeping with soap opera or kitchen-sink drama: from Nicola Wild’s Sarah to Val Burgess’s Nana, Joanne Rule’s Fern to community play debutant Darren Barrott, constantly kicking out in frustration.

The voice of the future, the herald of hope, is young Liv (Hannah Simpson on Wednesday, sharing the role with Ilya Cuthell), driven by her predilection for painting in the rain (and if she didn’t start off with watercolours, they would be by the end).

Lennon does not shy away from the blood and guts of Norse legend, for example Loki being bound in chains made from the stretched entrails of his son. Those entrails are red, a virulent colour motif that runs throughout the play, used to powerful effect both by designer Perks and movement director Lewis.

Hampson, in her belated Theatre Royal debut in the city where she has lived for three decades, leads with a performance that glows: she can be gravely serious, frustrated, questing, comforting, resolute, but also delights in shards of humour and a narrator’s permission to step outside the action.

Hammer to the Thor: Andrew Isherwood enjoys delivering another blow in The Coppergate Woman. Picture: Jane Hobson

Isherwood’s Thor, hair extensions et al, has something of the Marvel comic-book about him; Barrott and Hammond stand out too, but this is a team show, from ensemble to choir, musicians to a multitude of costume makers and the hair and make-up crew.

Hazel Jupp’s costume designs are worthy of a carnival, and praise too for Craig Kilmartin’s lighting and Mike Redley’ sound (making light of having so many voices on stage).

Nicolas Lewis’s largely earnest compositions would benefit from more oomph and greater contrast, characteristics essential to community singing that demands rather more fun and coloratura. Too much had to weigh on that last number.

Directors Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson pull the strings of such a large-scale enterprise with a passion for community theatre writ large, spectacle aplenty and more than a nod to in-vogue gig theatre. The joy here, however, rests more in that return after five years than in a troubling play for the End of Days that feels a bit of a drag when we need an uplift.

The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight until Saturday; 2.30pm matinees, Saturday and Sunday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

The end: Composer and musical director Nicolas Lewis, centre, leading the finale to The Coppergate Woman. Picture: Jane Hobson

Who was the Coppergate Woman? Kate Hampson prepares to put flesh on Viking bones in Theatre Royal community play

Shrouded in mystery: Shrouded in mystery: Kate Hampson prepares to tell the Coppergate Woman’s story at York Theatre Royal

REHEARSING the lead role in York Theatre Royal’s summer community production can be lonely for Kate Hampson.

“On a morning rehearsal, it’s usually just been me and the directors,” says Kate, the only professional in Juliet Forster and John R Wilkinson’s cast of 90 for Maureen Lennon’s epic storytelling drama The Coppergate Woman.

This is partly because the York actor and yoga enthusiast had to play catch-up. “I’ve stepped into rehearsals when you don’t want to feel like you’re on the back foot, but Juliet and John have done a great job in integrating me after the community cast started a while before me and had already formed various scenes. My task has been to think, ‘how do I enhance those scenes?’.”

Fostering a love of theatre from the age of eight and trained in theatre, film and television at York St John University and clowning at the Utrecht School of Arts, Kate has performed for Northern Broadsides, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Oldham Coliseum and Hull Truck Theatre, playing Mother and Mrs Perks in The Railway Children last winter, but The Coppergate Woman will mark two firsts.

Kate Hampson in rehearsal for The Coppergate Woman

“I’m working with a community cast for the first time,” she says. “There’s a little bit of pressure there; it’s a challenge, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say there was a feeling of it being daunting, but everyone has been really supportive and it’s been exhilarating to work with so many people. I think it’s perfect that a play all about the community has been cast from the community.”

Despite living in York for 27 years, Huddersfield-born Kate has never performed on the Theatre Royal’s main-house stage. “I did some work on a New Playwrights project, doing play readings with Damian [former artistic director Damian Cruden], but that was in the Studio, so Saturday will be my first time,” she says.

She will be keeping it in the family, however, as her husband, fellow professional actor Julian Kay [from the  Kay family of York lawyers] has graced that stage, performing in pantomimes.

Kate took a ten-year break from the stage to focus on bringing up their two children (son Arthur, 14, who has taken his first steps as an actor in Doctor Who and Brassic, and daughter Elsie, 12).

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster, left, and The Coppergate Woman playright Maureen Lennon with Jorvik Viking Centre’s model of the Coppergate Woman

“I admire actors who do continue to work in theatre when they have a young family, but with both Julian and I doing theatre professionally, it just felt that wasn’t possible,” she says.

“In those ten years off stage, I did some TV and commercials, and if you’re lucky enough the corporate world will sustain you. I love theatre but with young children, they’re the priority.”

The Railway Children at Hull Truck was a joyous return. “It’s lovely to be back in theatre, playing to live audiences, working with people in the business again,” says Kate.

From Saturday, she will be experiencing that excitement again, playing the title role in The Coppergate Woman, Maureen Lennon’s story that puts the flesh on the bones of a woman whose remains were found near the River Foss and are now exhibited under glass at the Jorvik Viking Centre.

“That’s another pressure. To do her justice, this woman who had family, friends, a job, and you want to recognise that sensitively,” says Kate Hampson of playing the Coppergate Woman

“What we know from history is that she was either Norwegian or northern Scottish and you can tell from her teeth that she’d eaten a lot of herring,” says Kate.

“So, you make choices from that. Is she Scandinavian, is she northern? We’re identifying her as Yorkshire; we know she came to York in her teens. It’s curious to think about what her accent would have sounded like, and I guess we can’t really know, so you just have to decide.”

Kate was familiar with the Coppergate Woman from the many visits she undertook to Jorvik with her children. “I felt like we were almost on speaking terms as we went there so frequently. At one point, the children kept wanting to go every weekend!” she recalls.

In Lennon’s play, the Coppergate Woman vacates her Jorvik resting place to venture into “crisis-hit modern-day York”. “Maureen weaves post-Covid stories into the play, when there’s still a hangover from such challenging times,” says Kate. “She also weaves in more Norse myths and legends and stories of everyday York folk today.

“My task has been to think, ‘how do I enhance those scenes?”, says Kate Hampson, after joining rehearsals for The Coppergate Woman with the community cast’s preparations already well under way

“Ultimately, it’s all about storytelling, connecting  and communicating, and how we collaborate with each other. It’s a play about hope and how we need to come together for our future.”

At the core of that play is the Coppergate Woman, as portrayed by Kate. “It’s a privilege to be playing a real person – wondering what she looked like, what she thought and what her origins were. You want to honour her, as you would with any real person you play,” she says.

“That’s another pressure. To do her justice, this woman who had family, friends, a job, and you want to recognise that sensitively – and Maureen has done that in her writing.

“I listened to a podcast about the Coppergate Woman, where they looked at historical artefacts, and then historians created her life from that, but not just one life, but various options. Maureen listed to that podcast too and chose the play’s path from that.”

Kate Hampson looks forward to performing on York Theatre Royal’s main-house stage for the first time

Summing up The Coppergate Woman, Kate says: “For me it’s about Norse legends and myths, and though Norse gods are usually imposing figures, the Coppergate Woman is a real woman who existed, and it’s important to see her as a human that the audience can connect with.

“We know very little about her, but we’re trying to get the essence of her, and that’s why you have to ground her in a real person.”

Championing York Theatre Royal’s passion for staging community theatre productions, Kate concludes: “It’s become a tradition here, and one the management wants to continue as the Theatre Royal were leading lights in establishing such shows. It’s a real testament to the theatre’s commitment that so soon after the Covid lockdowns, they’re mounting a play on such a scale.

“It’s remarkable how so many people want to give so much time to make a drama together, telling stories of York.”

The Coppergate Woman, York Theatre Royal, July 30 to August 7 (no shows on July 31 and August 1). Performances: 7.30pm, July 30, August 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6; 2.30pm, August 6 and 7. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

JORVIK’S Coppergate Woman to come to life in York Theatre Royal’s community play. Actors and backstage team needed

York Theatre Royal co-directors Juliet Forster, second from right, and John R Wilkinson and playwright Maureen Lennon with JORVIK staff members at the recruitment launch for The Coppergate Woman community play

HAVE you ever wondered who was “The Coppergate Woman”, whose remains are displayed in a glass case in the JORVIK Viking Centre in York after being discovered in a shallow pit by the River Foss.

One of only two full skeletons on show from the archaeological dig, she features in model form in the Coppergate visitor attraction, her identity unknown, but now she is to be “brought back to life in modern-day York” in this summer’s York Theatre Royal community project.

Directed by creative director Juliet Forster and associate artist John R Wilkinson, the storytelling show is being written by Hull playwright Maureen Lennon, fleshing out the very barest of bones for four interlinking stories to be performed by a community ensemble of between 80 and 100 from July 30 to August 6 on the main stage.

This week, working in partnership with JORVIK, the Theatre Royal issued a call-out for people to participate in the production, both backstage and on stage, where the company will be led by a yet-to-be-confirmed professional actor in the title role. 

Performers, musicians and those keen to work in stage management, wardrobe, lighting, props, marketing, fundraising and front-of-house are asked to visit yorktheatreroyal.co.uk for details of how to sign up for roles on and off stage.

Explaining how  she came to write the play, Maureen says: “Juliet approached me to say they were thinking of doing a community show that engaged with York’s Viking history and how stories of our ancestors might bridge the gap between their world and our world. How might they have an impact on how we live now, and what could we learn from each other?”

Playwright Maureen Lennon with JORVIK Viking Centre’s model of The Coppergate Woman

Juliet recalls: “The idea came from thinking about the importance of storytelling in our world and how do we draw people together. The Vikings were storytellers and I started thinking about the Vikings because it’s an area we as a theatre had not explored before and is a very interesting part of our history.

“I’d seen Maureen’s early play Bare Skin On Briny Waters at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and invited her company, Bellow Theatre, to bring it to the Theatre Royal Studio in 2018. She felt the right fit for the play we wanted to do this summer, but we’d never met in person until Monday this week!”

Maureen was delighted to receive the Theatre Royal commission. “Growing up in Hull, I used to really love going to JORVIK as a child, when although it was a museum, it felt like going to a theme park,” she says. “I hadn’t been back for years, but then revisited it to research for the play and I got really interested in the Coppergate Woman.”

Being confronted by her skeleton was a real example of two worlds meeting, says Maureen. “That’s the privilege of storytelling: we get to imagine her story, thinking about who she might have been and what she might say of our world.

“She’s in our world now, whether she likes it or not. I wondered if she was lonely. I wondered who she had been and what she would think about me staring at her now. It felt intimate and yet so much about her was unknown. 

York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster with JORVIK’s skeleton of The Coppergate Woman

“I wanted to give her the power to look at us just like I was looking at her in that moment. I wanted her to speak – although obviously in reality I’m glad she didn’t.”

This summer’s play was always envisaged as a project that talked about community, togetherness, and the power of storytelling in our societies, in light of the pandemic, says Maureen.

“That was the jumping-off point for The Coppergate Woman, which weaves myth with contemporary stories. The Vikings had an end-of-the-world story in their mythology, Ragnarok, and in our tale the Coppergate Woman is awakened to try to help four people of York live through their own version of Ragnarok. It’s about hope and heartache and loss – and starting again, together.”

Co-director John R Wilkinson says: “It’s been five years since we last did one of our community plays, but given all that’s gone on in the past couple of years, it’s really necessary and heartening to be able to bring people together again, this time through a storytelling piece.

“I would argue that storytelling has become a slightly underappreciated artform, so it’s interesting to be able to explore it in a community play.”

“Theatre should be about accentuating its strengths: that live interconnection between performers and the audience through direct storytelling,” says The Coppergate Woman co-director John R Wilkinson

Maureen says: “Storytelling has a flexibility to it that’s perfect for this show, because it’s not a show about one person but about the people of York, who take part in the story as a chorus of ‘Norns’, storytellers who operate in a similar way to the Fates in Greek mythology.”

Juliet rejoins: “That makes it distinctly different from any community production we’ve done in the past. We’ve gone back to the bare bones to conjure a world just with words. That act of coming together collectively to tell a story is something we’ve been really lacking.”

John concurs: “There seems to be a trend for trying to compete with streamed shows, but theatre should be about accentuating its strengths: that live interconnection between performers and the audience through direct storytelling.”

The last word goes to Maureen, who says: “The Coppergate Woman is a chance to tell a different story about the Viking community when we tend to associate them with invasion, violence and horns.”

The Vikings built bridges in the city, just as her community play builds bridges between York’s past and present through storytelling.

Tickets for The Coppergate Woman will go on sale next month with more details to follow.

Copyright of The Press, York

REVIEW: Tonderai Munyevu in Mugabe, My Dad & Me, York Theatre Royal

Tonderai Munyevu at the microphone stand in Mugabe, My Dad & Me on the York Theatre Royal stage. Picture: Jane Hobson

Mugabe, My Dad & Me, English Touring Theatre & York Theatre Royal, at York Theatre Royal until Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

IT has been a long wait for Zimbabwean-born writer-performer Tonderai Munyevu to premiere Mugabe, My Dad & Me.

The English Touring Theatre & York Theatre Royal production has gone through two pandemic-imposed postponements, three workshops and a transfer into an audio dramatization for Audible.com.

The play had long been billed as a one-man show but the published text states the presence of an Mbira player is compulsory, and sure enough, after Tonderai’s introduction and back story,  the Theatre Royal curtain rose on actor-musician Millie Chapanda, in sun-bright African dress, with the Zimbabwean Shona people’s instrument by her side.

Mugabe, My Dad & Me has been in a state of flux, moving from its planned Studio baptism to the main house, growing in length from 70 minutes to an over-long 90 minutes, and switching from the Theatre Royal’s Summer Of Love programme to The Haunted Season.

Tonderai Munyevu with mriba musician Millie Chapanda in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. In the background is a Union Flag dress, associated with Tonderai’s favourite Spice Girl, Gerri Halliwell

Which would he prefer? “I think ‘Haunted’. It sounds longer lasting. ‘The Summer Of Love’ sounds impermanent,” Tonderai said in his interview with CharlesHutchPress.

As it turns out, the play suits both: there is love, for his late father and the motherland he left with his mother for a new life in London at the age of 12; and there is sex, Soho nights and all.

There is a haunting presence too: the figure of President Robert Mugabe, the freedom fighter turned despot, a permanent representation of Zimbabwe in Tonderai’s life until the barnacle president resigned at 93 in 2017.

Tonderai set himself the writing task of working out his identity, who he is, why he longs for “home” yet wonders where he belongs, by constructing a memory play but one that does not stop in the past but informs the Tonderai of today, Tonderai at 39: a gay, Catholic, Zimbabwean writer and actor, who lives in London and will be marrying next year.

Tonderai Munyevu recalls experiencing snow for the first time in London in a scene from Mugabe, My Dad & Me. Picture: Jane Hobson

Taking to the stage in a white shirt, overlapping his blue jeans, microphone in hand as if for a stand-up comedy gig, he recalls being asked “Where are you from?”, as he poured a pint when working as a barman in one of those fallow times that actors grow accustomed to enduring.

It was this question that prompted him to look for answers in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. “I need to work things out, to understand – about my father, about Mugabe, about all these ghosts from the past,” he says in the prologue to Scene 2.

“I need to wrestle with where I stand in it all. With who I am today. This isn’t going to be an easy or straightforward story to tell,” he forewarns. It won’t all make sense, as much to him as to us, he cautions, but he turns out to be a highly coherent storyteller, shining a light on the chaos, chance and contradictions of life.

Set and costume designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen conjures memories and ghosts of Tonderai’s past by hanging row upon row of clothes above his head, a constant presence that is lowered or raised, depending on the scene.

Tonderai Munyevu and Millie Chapanda beneath the rows of clothes denoting people and stories from Tonderai’s past. Picture: Jane Hobson

The garments represent Tonderai, his mother, his father and Mugabe through the years, as well as uncles, aunts, his first lover, and Bob Marley at his famous Zimbabwe concert (although apparently Mugabe wanted Cliff Richard, considering Jamaican reggae icon Marley to be “too crude”).

Those clothes weigh heavy on the unfolding drama, like Banquo or the ghost of Hamlet’s father, but they rule out the need for any other means of evoking people or place, Tonderai’s words sufficing on their own.

The only “prop” is a chair for Millie Chapanda, as she changes position on the stage to suit the focus of each scene, under the concise yet poetic direction of Theatre Royal associate John R Wilkinson.

As the title suggests, Tonderai weaves together the impact of his father and Mugabe, the “father” of his homeland, and is unsparingly frank in his appraisal of both. 

His father, a bright and good looking “everyman”, was a womaniser, a wife-beater, a drinker, who died in desperate circumstances, as impoverished as the “bread basket of Africa” became in the later years of Mugabe’s presidency.

Tonderai Munyevu in “conversation” with the ghost of President Robert Mugabe at the climax to Mugabe, My Dad & Me. Picture: Jane Hobson

His father had worked at an accountancy firm, until a dispute with a white colleague ended with him punching him. Told he would not be fired if he apologised, he declined to do so, losing his job, setting a spiral of decline in motion.

Piece by piece, Tonderai puts the jigsaw together to explain his father’s incendiary character, recalling how belatedly he learned of the trauma that had shaped him.

As for Mugabe, in the climax to the play, Tonderai confronts the late President, by now represented in full regalia, as to why he turned from revolution to tyranny, failing those who had been promised a fruitful farming future after guerrilla service in the name of freedom and ending colonial rule.

Encountering the personable, forthright Tonderai over these 90 confessional, conversationalist minutes, this son of the Zimbabwean diaspora has his heart in his still-troubled southern African homeland, its culture and heritage, and yet he appreciates the freedoms brought to him by London life. Does that leave him in a no man’s land or a place of opportunity? Both, but roll on next year’s wedding, he will say.

One frustration in this male-dominated story: we learn next to nothing of his mother, but maybe Millie, her mriba and her calming presence can be read as testament to her influence. After all, Millie, not Tonderai, has the last word.

Review by Charles Hutchinson

Millie Chapanda and her mriba in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. Picture: Jane Hobson

What’s Tonderai’s relationship with Mugabe, his father and Zimbabwe as he seeks his identity in York Theatre Royal premiere?

Tonderai Munyevu: Zimbabwean-born performer and writer, premiering his new play, Mugabe, My Dad And Me, at York Theatre Royal from tonight’s first preview

ZIMBAMWEAN writer-performer Tonderai Munyevu’s new one-man show, Mugabe, My Dad & Me, appears in York Theatre Royal’s brochures for both the Summer Of Love and The Haunted Season.

“Which one suits it best, Tonderai?”, he is asked, when shown both. He smiles, then decides: “I think ‘Haunted’. It sounds longer lasting. ‘The Summer Of Love’ sounds impermanent.”

Tonderai is sitting by the first-floor bar at the Theatre Royal, ahead of his long-promised, pandemic-delayed world premiere opening tonight (9/9/2021), directed by Theatre Royal associate artist John R Wilkinson.

“I did a job in Bristol, then one week off, and we were going into rehearsals when everything stopped,” he says. “It’s just been postponed and postponed but I’m glad that John and the Theatre Royal have stuck with it.”

Mugabe, My Dad & Me, running until September 18 in the main house, charts the rise and fall of one of the most controversial politicians of the 20th century through the personal story of Tonderai’s Zimbabwean family and his relationship with his father, against the backdrop of the abiding legacy of British colonisation.

“Around the time when Robert Mugabe was deposed as president in 2017, I just felt like I needed to be back there,” he recalls. “At that point, I hadn’t been there for a few years, not for safety, but more for work and family. I found it was triggering a reaction in me, thinking, ‘I’m going to be in England, and not part of this amazing turnaround’, when I want to experience it’.”

Initially, Tonderai pondered doing a play based solely on freedom fighter-turned despot Mugabe’s speeches from 1962 to 2017, or “potentially to 2018, when he did that final press conference that was so telling”. “But then I thought, when I looked at my father’s story, being born in subjugated Rhodesia, I should tell that story too,” he says.

“I just knew my father’s basic story; I knew he was my dad; he drank too much; he womanised; he was fantastic, such fun, but he was a wife beater too. He lost his job as an accountant – I was about 11; he was in his 40s – and life just changed for him at that point.

The poster for Tonderai Munyevu’s Mugabe, My Dad & Me, premiering at York Theatre Royal

“Just as Mugabe’s speeches changed from calling for equality and England knighting him to the speeches of the 1990s and his fall-out with [international development secretary] Clare Short and ‘Prime Minister] Tony Blair, going against the Lancaster Agreement, over how land was to be dealt with and how people would be compensated. That fall-out led to an impoverishment of Zimbabwe that was unparalleled.”

Based in London, Tonderai set to writing Mugabe, My Dad And Me. “I knew if I made it too political, we’d lose the sense of a story being told, but if we could see it through a family’s eyes, with the story of my father dying in an impoverished state, after I left for England with my mother when I was 12, that would work better,” he says.

“The story of Zimbabwe is the story of Mugabe and the story of my father’s generation, but also the story of my generation, who have moved away from home and are grappling with who they are, when you’re asked, ‘Where do you belong?’, and you know you are technically part of that culture but you’re not there anymore, so where do you belong?”

A quarter of Zimbabweans left southern Africa in the big exodus around 2003. “That happened once the economy tanked, the white farmers left and the land was not being cultivated. It started a very tragic downward turn,” says Tonderai.

What about his father losing his job? How come? “The issue involved my father and another accountant at work having a dispute. They said my father wouldn’t be fired if he offered an apology, but he felt hard done by and so he didn’t apologise.” Instead, he left the company.

“My mother and I then left [for London] before it got really bad for him, and I would keep in touch with letters, but not really knowing how things were for him. But then, when I went back, I learnt what really happened, with my uncle being killed when he was only 17 by white Rhodesians who had paraded his body as a warning to those who were guerrilla-fighting in the fields for freedom,” says Tonderai.

“My family was never offered the land that was promised to freedom fights, so Mugabe didn’t deliver on that promise. There’s no-one with moral authority in this story as you can’t defend Mugabe, but equally Blair had a superficiality about him.”

Learning more of his father and his family’s back story led Tonderai to feel more sympathetic towards him. “Though my mother says, ‘No, whatever happens in your life, it doesn’t justify you being a wife-beating, womanising drinker’.”

“Until I wrote this play, there were things that I’d never written about; things that were holding me hostage,” says Tonderai

As for Tonderai’s own sense of identity as an African, Catholic, gay artist, he says: “It had always been connected with Mugabe’s long, long life, like his contemporaries, The Queen and Prince Philip. Now I had to grapple with the President no longer being on pictures everywhere, but also that joy that now we have a democracy, we can protest on the street.

“I started looking at things, about where I wanted to be, and I wanted to understand myself, and part of that was understanding my father. If you’re an artist, you’re an emotionally and intellectually mature person, and I want to investigate that.”

Nothing is simple in his assessment. “The colonisers were ostensibly a negative force in that land, but in some ways positive too, just as Mugabe was an icon of liberation but then tainted by his later actions, and my father was an amazing man, but he was violent too,” says Tonderai.

“In Africa, we have been colonised, but we have colonised ourselves too…some people think Zimbabwe is worse now [post-Mugabe]. I think it’s a very journey to having the opportunity for young people to have the choice of what happens in that country because Zimbabwe is still locked into that thing of ‘What war did you fight in? Why do you, as a young person, have the right to say what Zimbabwe should be?’.

“It does feel like we have to wait for a while to see what the future path will be for Zimbabwe. We have a military hold on religion. You feel despondency because you have hope, just like in South Africa, with Nelson Mandela’s presidency, so when we start looking at African culture, maybe it will be more attuned to Marxism, Socialism for sure, but not democracy as it stands now.

“What I have to do humbly in this story is to show how complex it is and to say there are no easy solutions.”

Tonderai ponders: “Is it more helpful to say that humans have always done it – subjugating people – but we don’t have to define ourselves now by the same standards, when we solve our problems by focusing on our resources, on education, to be fully human, without racism.

“Rather than having to be respected by a white person, or a white person having to admit that they did wrong, instead our priority is our children and our sense of worth that is not defined by subjugation or being considered lesser by another race.

“We move forward. The broader thing that has humbled me in doing Mugabe, My Dad & Me is I could write something where everything feels it’s about race, but instead in this play I’m writing about my culture, the complexities of that legacy and now not defining myself as a migrant in Britain. No-one is ever just a ‘migrant’.”

Tonderai Munyevu, right, in Leeds company Eclipse Theatre’s Black Men Walking, on tour at York Theatre Royal in 2019

Tonderai, who last took to the Theatre Royal stage in Eclipse Theatre’s touring production of Testament’s Black Men Walking in September 2019, turns to discussing the “Me” in Mugabe, My Dad & Me. “There’s a point in this play when I say ‘I’m a gay man, I’ve just got engaged and I’m getting married next year’, and though there’s a necessity to say it, I’m a free man and I’m incredibly privileged to be supported,” he says.

“I think my father always liked me because I was confident, erudite, intelligent, fun, and for my father in Zimbabwe in the 1980s, he loved that about me, and I loved that about him. My parents were both bright people and I loved that about them.

“My father said, in the last conversation we ever had, ‘I know I don’t have to ask you if you have a wife’. My feeling is, I think he knew I was gay, rather than him saying I was too young to marry!”

Writing Mugabe, My Dad & Me has proved cathartic for Tonderai. “Yes, things have been resolved by writing it. I think I know who I am now because of writing it; I’m definitely a writer because, until I wrote this play, there were things that I’d never written about; things that were holding me hostage,” he says.

“I never had a straight answer about Zimbabwe, but to have the confidence to be able to talk to a white farmer, Ben, about his life there was important to me. He knew everything by the book and had a very clear argument as to what he thought.

“When I was doing my preparation for this play, I would say, ‘hey, I’m writing this play and I’d like a white man’s perspective on Zimbabwe’, and to have a conversation with such clarity about being Zimbabwean was fantastic. We’re friends now.

“Ironically, he stayed in Zimbabwe, unlike me, and his rhythms of life are dovetailed with the rhythms of nature.”

The pandemic lockdowns have held back the premiere of Mugabe, My Dad & Me, but that has worked to Tonderai’s advantage. “Originally, it was going to be in the Studio, but I’ve always wanted to be on the main stage with a piece like this because I believe it can hold the main stage and I can hold the main stage, and I’m really excited to be performing it on that stage,” he says.

Summing up his one-man show about three men, Tonderai says: “This play is not a raking-up of the past; it’s a play about the present. One of the things that the pandemic has made us realise is that a leader can **** up a country, and sometimes in Europe, we don’t realise how dangerous it is to put people in this position, taking you in a dangerous direction.”

Cue Mugabe, My Dad And Me, premiering from tonight in English Touring Theatre and York Theatre Royal’s co-production in York. For tickets: 01904 623568 or online at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

“I’ve always wanted to be on the main stage with a piece like this because I believe it can hold the main stage,” says Tonderai Munyevu, as he sits on the York Theatre Royal stage

York Theatre Royal goes global for Summer Of Love on playing fields and back indoors UPDATED 4/6/2021

Juliet Forster: York Theatre Royal creative director will be going around York in rather fewer than 80 days with Around The World In Days In 80 Days

MOVE over 1967. Here comes the new Summer Of Love at York Theatre Royal.

What’s more, after the success of last winter’s Travelling Pantomime tour to 16 York locations, the Theatre Royal will be on the move again, going global for a fresh adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around The World In 80 Days.

A soon-to-be confirmed further outdoor location for August 10 to 12 is to be added to the playing fields of Carr Junior School, August 6 to 8; Archbishop Holgate’s School, August 14 to 16, and Joseph Rowntree School, August 18 to 21, before a main-stage indoors finale back at base from August 25 to 28.

The adaptation is by the Theatre Royal’s creative director, Juliet Forster, director of both the Travelling Pantomime and Love Bites, the love letter to live performance that launched The Love Season after Covid restrictions eased on May 17. 

“As one of the characters in the play says: ‘If you can’t travel to exciting parts of the globe this summer, don’t despair – we are here to bring the world to you!’That’s the spirit of this production really,” says Juliet, who will be working with Sara Perks, the designer of Everything Is Possible: The York Suffragettes and Brideshead Revisited at the Theatre Royal.

“Many of us are feeling disappointed that there are still a lot of restrictions around travelling this summer, so this show is the perfect opportunity for some armchair tourism – or, rather, picnic blanket tourism.

“Jules Verne’s story is a lot of fun as the characters race against time to complete a full circuit of the Earth, and in this version, fact and fiction also go head to head as real-life investigative journalist Nellie Bly, puts in an appearance. It’s going to be a joyful, very energetic, very silly and highly acrobatic re-telling of the story, delivering the kind of experience that live theatre does best.”

Delighted by the ticket sales and audience response to the socially-distanced, Covid-secure Love Season so far, Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird has a similar policy in place for post-June 21, given the rising uncertainty surrounding “Freedom Day’s” removal of all strictures.

“We’re moving through the gears, one step at a time, one mini-season at a time,” says York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

“We’re moving through the gears, one step at a time, one mini-season at a time,” he says. “We knew we couldn’t do a Covid-safe community play this summer, though we’d really like to do one soon.

“But we got the bug for moving shows out and about around York with the Travelling Pantomime, and when it looked like there was a possibility of theatres still not reopening fully, we looked at doing an outdoor show and chose one with a wonderful sense of adventure and the spectacular, Around The World In 80 Days, where it will feel like a circus has parked in your nearby field.”

Juliet’s adaptation, co-created in rehearsal through July with a five-strong cast of circus performers and actors, will add a new layer to Verne’s story. “She got really interested in this amazing woman, Nellie Bly, who went around the world in only 72 days at the end of the 19th century,” says Tom.

“Juliet has interwoven Nellie Bly’s story with Phileas Fogg’s story to present one tale they may well not know inside one they probably do. It really hurtles along and is a very dynamic piece, where the framing device involves the circus performers deciding they want to tell Nellie’s story.

“Juliet is a really talented dramaturg, and that’s a skill it’s good for us to make use of, bringing a new voice to a classic novel.”

Looking further ahead, audiences can travel to Africa too in the Summer Of Love when Tonderai Munyevu’s Mugabe, My Dad & Me has its delayed world premiere from September 9 to 18. Theatre Royal artistic associate John R Wilkinson’s production was scheduled to debut in May 2020 but postponed under the Covid pandemic restrictions.

Presented by York Theatre Royal and English Touring Theatre, writer-performer Munyevu’s play charts the rise and fall of controversial Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe through the personal story of Tonderai’s family and his relationship with his father.

“We are so proud of this play, doing the world premiere, co-produced with English Touring Theatre,” says Tom. “It’s one for the lovers of politics and how it’s never quite as clear cut as you think it is: the way Mugabe moved from hero to villain and how that played out in millions of Zimbabweans’ lives.

Mugabe, My Dad & Me: World premiere at York Theatre Royal

“It’s such an interesting piece in the way that it looks at how one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter: the way that Mugabe broke the old system of rule but then ended up founding a new form of tyranny.  As well as that, the play is about being part of that new [Zimbabwean] diaspora.”

Tom is delighted to be linking up with Tonderai Munyevu once more. “I worked with him at Shakespeare’s Globe on the 2012 Cultural Olympiad Festival,” he recalls. “He did a wonderful two-man version of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona and then he was in Black Men Walking when it toured the Theatre Royal in September 2019.

“Now, Mugabe, My Dad & Me will be rehearsed in York, made here, and will open here before going on the road, and it’s been made into an audio book so it will have a digital life too.”

Tom praises director John R Wilkinson too. “He’s a massive talent, now directing for the Young Vic as well as for the Theatre Royal, and it’s great to have him back after his production of Athol Fugard’s Hello And Goodbye in the Studio in November 2019.”

Broadening his thoughts, Tom says: “There was no good way to make the job cuts that we had to make last year [after the pandemic restrictions cast the theatre into the dark], but I’m pleased with the way we decided we’d cut a bit from each department, rather than closing a department.

“This way allowed us to continue to produce plays. I’ve always been passionate about that; despite all the pressures of, first, austerity and, then, the pandemic, it feels important to still do that.

“It gives us that agility, allowing us to make work that suits the venue, the city, the times, whereas if you cut it, it’s incredibly difficult to get it back because regional-producing theatre is very difficult to do under Arts Council funding.”

Tom continues: “To have two of our three Summer Of Love shows home produced is something we’re incredibly proud of, and it also allows us to use artists from York, like we did for the Love Bites shows when we reopened in May. If we can’t provide that opportunity, then we’re not doing our job right.

“I’ve worked in repertory theatre in Russia and Eastern Europe and there’s a lot to be said for it. You keep gazing at it longingly, but then you think, ‘how did they do that?’.”

Bookish and boozy: Stephen Tompkinson as university tutor Frank in Educating Rita

In between the two in-house productions will be David Pugh’s Theatre by the Lake touring production of Willy Russell’s Educating Rita, starring Stephen Tompkinson and Jessica Johnson, from August 31 to September 4.

Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1980 and later made into an award-winning film with Julie Walters and Michael Caine, Russell’s heart-felt comedy drama follows married Liverpool hairdresser Rita and her encounters with heavy-boozing university tutor Frank while studying on an Open University course.

Max Roberts, emeritus artistic director at Newcastle’s Live Theatre, directs a production that bedded in at the cliff-edge Minack Theatre, Cornwall, last summer. “As it was outdoors, David Pugh was able to put on a long run there after the first lockdown ended,” says Tom.

“It’s great that Max is directing it because he’s directed lots of Lee Hall’s pieces, like The Pitmen Painters, and having Stephen Tompkinson in the cast keeps up our wish to bring big-name actors to York after Ralph Fiennes in T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in July.”

Education, education, education, plus humour, politics and life’s fateful twists make for a winning combination in Educating Rita.  “It’s entered folklore,” says Tom. “What’s interesting is we thought people would come because of Stephen’s popularity, but lots of people are saying they’re booking because they just love the story.”

Tickets for the Summer Of Love are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.

Copyright of The Press, York

York Theatre Royal is all out of love as season is postponed by Lockdown 3

“A beautiful play, a love story, but a universal one – literally! – about learning in time what matters in the end,” says Julie Hesmondhalgh, introducing her one-woman show The Greatest Play In The History Of The World, part of The Love Season, now postponed at York Theatre Royal

YORK Theatre Royal’s St Valentine’s Day reopening has been given the kiss-off by the Lockdown 3 strictures.

As the killjoy Covid curse strikes again, The Love Season is being postponed, but socially distanced love will out in the end.

Tickets were due to go on sale tomorrow (8/1/2021), but the launch has been put on hold while theatre programmers rethink plans for a season to be performed to a Covid-secure reduced capacity.

Explaining the inevitable decision, chief executive Tom Bird says: “We are committed to spreading the love and sharing the joy of live theatre with The Love Season as soon as we are able to do so safely. We’ll be announcing our revised plans and reopening date as soon as possible.

“The Love Season is designed to remind us that human connection – love, sympathy, kindness, mutual understanding, warmth, equality – is what makes us the wonderful human beings we are. In 2021 we want to celebrate humanity, our own community and a sense of togetherness.  

“We want to do that with words, music, dancing, film and even food! It’s going to be fun and we can’t wait.”

Aside from two previews of York Theatre Royal’s Travelling Pantomime on a pop-up stage on December 2 and 3, the Theatre Royal auditorium has remained dark since the March shutdown.

Once the green light is given, The Love Season will be played to a main-house capacity reduced from 750 to a socially distanced 345.

When first announced, the season was to have opened with a York In Love “special event” on February 14, to be followed by plays from around the world embracing love in its many forms, running until April 21.

First up, booked in for February 16 to 20, was the debut tour of The Greatest Play In The History Of The World, a one-woman show for Coronation Street and Broadchurch actor Julie Hesmondhalgh, premiered at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, in 2018, when she won the The Stage Edinburgh Award for her performance.

“We are committed to spreading the love and sharing the joy of live theatre with The Love Season,” says York Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird as he looks forward to rearranging the postponed programme

The putative 2021 itinerary took in further Yorkshire shows at Hull Truck Theatre, from January 29 to February 6, and the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, from March 9 to 13.

Recalling the play’s roots, Hesmondhalgh said: “I had a notion, a romantic notion, that my husband, the writer Ian Kershaw, should write a one-woman show for me and we could tour it together into our dotage, like travelling troubadours (or something).

“A couple of Christmases ago, Ian kept disappearing to the cellar for an hour at a time, wrapping presents maybe, I thought. And then he presented me with this lovely thing. 

“A beautiful play, a love story, but a universal one – literally! – about learning in time what matters in the end, about leaving a mark on the world – and maybe beyond – that shows us, the human race, in all its glorious messiness, confusion and joy.

“It was the best present I ever got. In these dark and confusing times, it offers a bit of love and light as we end this difficult year and enter 2021 with fresh hope.”

The Love Season programme also includes the premiere of Tonderai Munyevu’s Mugabe, My Dad And Me, one of the productions postponed when the Theatre Royal had to close.

Theatre Royal associate director John R Wilkinson directs writer-performer Munyevu in this co-production with English Touring Theatre: a one-man show that charts the rise and fall of Robert Mugabe, the controversial Zimbabwean revolutionary and president, through the personal story of Tonderai’s family and his relationship with his father.

Watch this space for updates on the revised Love Season.

Did you know?

YORK Theatre Royal has been granted the use of Society of London Theatre and UK Theatre’s See It Safely mark. This certification affirms the theatre is complying with the latest Government and industry Covid-19 guidelines to ensure the safety of staff and audiences.

York Theatre Royal’s artwork for The Love Season