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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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’.”
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, 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.
ONCE nights start to draw in, York Theatre Royal will fill its stage with spirits and shadows in The Haunted Season from September 9.
In the home of the restless ghost of the Grey Lady, world premieres by Emma Rice, Matthew Bourne and Tonderai Munyevu will be complemented by scary appearances by horror favourites Dracula, The Hound Of the Baskervilles and the Headless Horseman.
As trailered in CharlesHutchPress, Emma Rice’s Wise Children will complete a hattrick of Theatre Royal visits with Rice’s new adaptation of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights in a Theatre Royal co-production with the National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic from November 9 to 20.
Lucy McCormick will play Cathy in this world premiere as Rice’s visual and musical style brings new life to this epic Yorkshire story of love, revenge and redemption.
“It is with an earthy spring in my step and epic twinkle in my eye that I announce our new plans for Wuthering Heights,” says Rice, who presented Angela Carter’s Wise Children at the Theare Royal in March 2019 and Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers that September.
“So many projects have fallen by the wayside during lockdown that there were times when I lost hope but there was no need. Wise Children are back; stronger, wiser and grateful for the chance to sing and dance again. The exceptional cast, crew, administrative and creative teams are ready to go and we are fizzing with ideas, dreams and anticipation.”
Earlier in the Haunted Season, from September 30 to October 2, will be the world premiere of celebrated choreographer Matthew Bourne’s The Midnight Bell, a dance exploration of “intoxicated tales from darkest Soho”, inspired by English novelist and Gaslight playwright Patrick Hamilton.
Delving into the underbelly of 1930s’ London life, this New Adventures show invites audiences to step inside The Midnight Bell, a tavern where one particular lonely hearts club gathers to play out lovelorn affairs of the heart: bitter comedies of longing, frustration, betrayal and redemption.
The Theatre Royal had to wait for 30 years for Londoner Sir Matthew Bourne, doyen of dandy dance, to bring a show to York for the first time on his Early Adventures tour in March 2017 after he introduced mid-scale touring. The Theatre Royal promptly booked his next tour, Matthew Bourne’s Deadly Serious, but that visit never materialised. Now, however, Bourne is back with his Soho tales.
The season will open with another world premiere, Zimbabwean writer-performer Tonderai Munyevu’s Mugabe, My Dad & Me from September 9 to 18. His high-voltage one-man show charts the rise and fall of one of the most controversial politicians of the 20th century, Robert Mugabe, through the personal story of Tonderai’s family and his relationship with his father as he considers familial love, identity and what it means to be “home”.
Playwright (and pantomime dame to boot) Philip Meeks has history at York Theatre Royal in the form of Twinkle, Little Star, starring Nottingham Playhouse panto legend Kenneth Alan Taylor in the Studio in 2008 and the 2017 world premiere of Murder, Margaret and Me, his comedy-thriller of imagined meetings between crime novelist and playwright Agatha Christie and actress Margaret Rutherford.
Now Meeks will return with his stage adaptation of The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving’s 1820 tale of the Headless Horseman, from October 5 to 9, when Wendi Peters, from Coronation Street, and Bill Ward, from Coronation Street, Emmerdale and Before We Die, will lead the cast and Filipe J Carvalho will provide the stage illusions.
Director Jake Smith says: “Sleepy Hollow is undoubtedly one of the greatest horror stories ever written and a tour de force to stage. The production has at its heart the power of nomadic storytelling and gathering round the campfire for a good ghost story. It is an important story for now as we look at conversations around the identity of nations, communities and humankind throughout the world.”
Two familiar figures from the world of horror will put in appearances at the Haunted Season, albeit maybe not in the expected manner. Kings of comedy Le Navet Bete will sink their teeth into Dracula: The Bloody Truth on September 24 and 25, mixing slapstick with carefully crafted comedy and a healthy dose of things going wrong as the action moves from dark and sinister Transylvania to the “awkwardly charming seaside town of Whitby”.
From October 19 to 23, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective story The Hound Of The Baskervilles will be given a humorous overhaul in a Lotte Wakeham production where farce collides with theatrical invention and comic performances.
Pride And Prejudice’s most roguish gentleman, George Wickham, will seek to set the record straight when Adrian Lukis performs in Being Mr Wickham from October 14 to 16. Lukis, who played Mr Wickham in the BBC TV adaptation, will reveal what really happened with Darcy, how he felt about Lizzie and, of course, what happened at Waterloo.
Two dance companies will return to the Theatre Royal stage: Ballet Black on October 26 and Phoenix Dance Theatre on November 23 and 24.
Cassa Pancho’s Ballet Black Double Bill will feature Then And Now, wherein Will Tuckett blends classical ballet, poetry and music to explore ideas of home and belonging, and fellow Olivier Award-winning choreographer Mthuthuzeli November’s contemplation of the purpose of life in The Waiting Game.
Leeds company Phoenix Dance Theatre will be celebrating 40 Years Of Phoenix with a birthday programme of work by international and award-winning choreographers, including former artistic directors and collaborators.
Lorne Campbell’s new theatrical version of The Ballad Of Johnny Longstaff will be performed by BBC Radio 2 Folk Award-winning trio The Young’uns – Sean Cooney, David Eagle and Michael Hughes – from October 28 to 30.
This protest-song celebration of northern working-class activism features songs from the original album, alongside new material and animation, in the true story of a young anti-fascist’s journey from poverty and unemployment in Stockton-on-Tees through the hunger marches of the 1930s, the mass trespass movement and the Battle of Cable Street, to fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War.
On October 11 and 12, English Touring Opera will return to the Theatre Royal with Handel’s Amadigi, based on a chivalric romance about three young people imprisoned by a sorceress.
From November 2 to 6, York Opera will present The Magic Flute, Mozart’s magical and last great opera, sung in English with an orchestra.
For younger audiences, Rod Campbell’s lift-the-flap book will leap off the page in Dear Zoo Live!, a show packed full of puppetry, songs and all the animals from the zoo, on September 28 and 29.
After The Love Season and upcoming Summer Of Love, The Haunted Season will be the third of York Theatre Royal’s mini-seasons since reopening on May 17. Tickets are on sale on 01904 623568 and at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.
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.
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.