47th Post: 5th ETHIOPIA – Meeting the Mahdi

[From contemporary African diaries]


1995 August: Thursday

6pm: Chatting with Hailu, I discovered a major problem. I was going to have real trouble over the currency. I couldn’t take birr out of the country – it was regarded as high treason and apparently a capital offence or something. What on earth was I going to do with the show profits? Hailu suggested taking goods instead.

6 30pm: While I was setting out the props in the restaurant, Magoo Thatcher told me that they couldn’t begin serving meals until 7 45. This meant that, if I began at eight, I’d have to perform to the accompaniment of meal orders, waitress delivery, and cutlery clashing.

He also mentioned that there was a very important Somali war lord staying at the hotel, who would be attending the show. Wondered whether Wilde’s less than respectful attitude to religion could be a problem there. I couldn’t remember whether the Somalis were Coptic Christian or Moslem – or indeed what their attitude might be to Wildean subtleties.

7 30pm: Began doing the make-up and costume. Started the countdown to the 8pm deadline. Felt tired – the lack of oxygen was hitting me hard.

7 55pm: Ready and waiting. Hailu came in.

“The audience is still arriving.”

“Well, what time do I go on?”

“I’ll go and find out.”

“OK, but can you come back immediately and tell me?”

“Yes, no problem.”

8 15pm: Hailu returned. He shrugged his shoulders.



“Half past eight. Definite.”

8 45pm: Hailu returned, breathless.

“Yes, go now. Hurry, hurry!”

Took a deep breath and walked out to take position behind the screen. Out in the audience, I could spot the Somali warlord. He was dressed formally in a flowing white robe and turban and holding a short ceremonial spear – he looked a lot like the Mahdi as portrayed by Laurence Olivier in the old film ‘Khartoum’. There were four men, presumably his bodyguard, grouped around him – some of them were wearing bandoliers and I could see at least two revolver holsters. Ye gods, I hoped Somalis could take a joke.

Despite these worrying signals, when I finally did get on stage, things went rather well. This time, no initial hassles, no laser display adverts, and the music cue started on time. There were about fifty in the audience – a drop in numbers but there were more whites in this time.

Ibex Hotel lodge

However, after a few minutes, I realised that a new problem had raised its head. Muddy Waters, the maitre d’, now dressed in a white sarong and large red sash, was standing at the back with his arms clasped benignly over his enormous belly and nodding sagely to the monologue. His waitresses were stationed along the walls. Whenever there was the slightest suggestion of a laugh from the audience, there was a gap of about three seconds before Muddy gave a basso profundo chuckle, which then tipped off the waitresses who added their approving titters. It dawned on me that Magoo Thatcher had tried to ease my concern about the previous night’s lack of laughter by forming a claque. The trouble was that, particularly among the waitresses, their English was at best rudimentary, so Muddy was acting as a warning cue.

The result was truly weird – I delivered the line, there were a few genuine giggles, then a fake rumbling belly-laugh, then a round of girlish hilarity.

On the other hand, the show itself, a couple of fluffs apart, went pretty well. It started badly, but I managed to catch the pace early on. It was easy to act tonight after the mess of last night. During the jail sequence the audience was really listening – not even a hint of cutlery rattling – and the ending was genuinely effective. I headed offstage to good applause, marched back to the bedroom, and punched the air in triumphal relief.

God, doing these shows is so up and down. You’re at the mercy of both circumstances and your own doubts and cowardice and courage.

Hailu burst in beaming:

“That is the best!”

He added: “I didn’t tell you before because I thought it might upset you, but Tadesse said that he thought we would be lucky to get an audience at all. Nobody would want to see a play about a homosexual – they are criminals here, you see. But we have done very well!”

He left to catch his bus.

 10 15pm: Went to the bar and had a pint of beer with Bill, the white guy I’d met earlier in the Magdala bar. He was with three British co-workers from the water company. They were not really a group of friends, more a disparate gang thrown together by chance and race. The ex-pat world must be quite strange – the world in which Somerset Maughan used to specialise.

Our conversation sagged, not helped by the thunderous ‘folkloric’ group who had started their set nearby. I think they were taking out their irritation at being double-booked by turning up their amplifiers. Bill and his crowd got up to leave – I thanked him for his courtesy in coming.

Sitting alone for a moment, I caught sight of the Somali warlord. He stared across the room at me, then stood up suddenly, His bodyguards leaped to attention behind him, hands to their holsters. He stopped for a moment to pick up his ceremonial spear then, still with his eyes fixed on me, strode across the room, the gunmen in close attendance. Jaysus, this could be trouble! This really could be the final curtain.

He stopped and stared down at me. Then he bowed and in an impeccable Oxford accent drawled:

“I thoroughly enjoyed your show, old chap. Break a leg.”

With that, he strolled on out of the room.

Well, blow me down with a wet fish. How utterly extraordinary?

An Addis girl

11pm: Sat with Magoo Thatcher – he said that he thought the war lord had studied at Balliol College, Oxford.

The folkloric dance troupe were performing in front of us. They were as brilliant as had been the Karamara troupe last night but the atmosphere was wrong. All the whites had left and the remaining audience were middle-aged Ethiopians who’d seen it all before.

The lead dancer, though, was still hypnotically sexy. She moved in front of me and I rose for a shoulder wriggle. I was getting quite used to it now. This time she got in close – that extraordinary to-and-fro neck jerk pushed her face against mine. An indefinable smell of – Africa? Pushed some birr between her breasts and she swayed off. A manic puppet, maybe – but WOW.

11 45pm: The Ibex managerial coven started to leave – first Magoo and the Heavy Accountant. Then Moges Kofle, with a stately word of congratulations. He walked away with the Old Man of the Mountains, still with tribal staff, tottering in his wake. I ordered room service beer and retired to the bedroom.

Midnight: Drank the beer. Well, the second night was over and thanked the Lord I’d made up for the disaster of last night – I was back on form again.

Earlier I explained to Hailu the meaning of the Irish expression, ‘the Craic’. Come what may, the most important thing on this trip – and on any other for that matter – was the CRAIC! The money was secondary. Nice to have it, of course.

2am: Still drinking and writing postcards. A fearful thunderstorm outside. The rain was drumming down on a tin roof somewhere. Opened the window and leaned out – the dank, liverish smell of Africa. A stream of water cascaded down the hotel wall and splashed on to the earth. Life for Ethiopia.

Read then slept at 3am.

1995 August: Friday

9 30am: Breakfast in the restaurant. The only other occupant was one of the Somali Warlord’s bodyguards. He was still wearing his bandolier and holstered gun belt while sucking a grapefruit clasped in both hands. He rose and bowed as I entered.

Noon: Went for a walk on my own alongside the shanty town. Without my black minders, I got continuous hassle from begging children. I was not only white but I was taking photographs – an immediate target. Explored a local market – mostly fruit.

On my return along the road, a sweet-faced child shyly tried to beg. Weakening for a moment, I gave him a coin. Big mistake. Immediately, like shaking a beehive, kids emerged from everywhere, two just missing the wheels of a truck as they scampered across the road. Handed out the remainder of my coins – the latecomers were very indignant that I’d run out. A row developed between the haves and the have-nots. I circled around it and returned to the hotel. Another western aid cock-up – in microcosm.

Ibex Road going west to Sudan

2pm: Walked towards Addis with Hailu. Met a friend of his on the road, who turned out to be the drummer with last night’s folkloric group. He was accompanied by his girlfriend, who had one of the most beautiful faces I’ve ever seen. The Ethiopians really are a very good-looking people – a mixture of African vigour and Arab refinement.

We hailed a people’s taxi into town and alighted at the National Theatre. It looked like another grim square lump on the outside but, on entering, I was struck by the genuinely impressive foyer. There was a wide sweep of black marble steps intersected by thick columns projecting to the roof. Each column was covered with Shakespearean quotes in Amharic – presumably translated by the Laureate Tsegaye. It was definitely more striking than the foyer of the London National Theatre.

Hailu knew everybody and our progress was punctuated by much hand-shaking and ‘Great English Comedian’-ing. I was introduced to the current director of the theatre, a tall easy-going man who led us into the auditorium. It was a vast hall filled with about a thousand uncomfortable looking wooden chairs. But what captured the eye was a huge brick column that projected from the rear wall – its base took up a large section of the available floor space. About twenty feet up, the middle of the column had been hollowed out to provide a spacious platform. It looked like a lighting bay designed by a megalomaniac – it totally dominated the auditorium. The director explained that this was the Emperor Haile Selassie’s royal box. He was a theatre fanatic who would come every night, no matter what was playing.

National Theatre programme – script in Amharic

The director showed us on to the stage – this was larger than Covent Garden. He ordered that the curtains should be drawn back so that I could get a feel of the atmosphere. I stood centre stage and then launched into a full blown rendition of the ‘St Crispin’s Day’ speech. An incredible experience – reciting Shakespeare in front of the Imperial Throne of the Lion of Judah!

3pm: Moved on to the theatre café for a snack. The rain started again outside, but this soon changed to something else. Someone pulled aside the net curtain and said:

“It’s hail.”

Hail? In Central Africa? How amazing – but then, I suppose there’s snow on Mount Kilimanjaro 200 miles to the south. It’s all down to height above sea level.

Several members of the theatre sat down to talk with us – a well-known actress called Etemesh, the production manager called Fekakedo Faka, and an elderly white-haired man called Getachew Debaleke. Getachew had been a theatre veteran for 43 years and doubled up as the archivist.

He described how he had been part of an Ethiopian theatre tour of Senegal. They performed to a thousand strong audience who totally ignored them and played cards throughout the show. It turned out that the Senegalese didn’t understand Amharic.

Getachew had also met two famous British people during his time at the theatre. Firstly, and very surprisingly, Sylvia Pankhurst, the daughter of the British suffragette leader. She had become a passionate supporter of the Emperor and, at his invitation, had come to live and eventually die in Ethiopia.

The other was the English actor Sir Donald Wolfit, the last of the great actor-managers. In the 1950s, Wolfit arrived to perform ‘Othello’ here. After one night, he left for Nairobi in a huff declaring that: “this theatre is not a theatre. It is an opera house!”, and therefore not suited to his voice. Good job they didn’t offer him the Ibex restaurant.

I had actually met Wolfit when I was a student at Hull University – he had come to give the Hull Drama Dept a talk about his life. I’d found him to be a friendly and amusing man, but apparently he had a reputation for irascibility in his theatres.

I  told Getachew the only story that I remembered about Wolfit. He had once summoned a young actor to his room and told him that he was going to be sacked from Wolfit’s production of ‘Macbeth’ at the end of the week. That night, the actor, seething with revenge, arrived on stage as a messenger to speak the line “The Queen, my lord, is dead”, the cue for Wolfit to deliver the immortal speech “Out, out, brief candle”. Instead, the actor gave him the line:

“The Queen, my lord, is very much better!”

Getachew showed me a photo of Wolfit arriving at Bole Airport and being greeted by a hilariously typical British Council representative. Across the years, it was easy to sense that bovine superiority of the 1950s British official abroad.

Getachew presented me with a signed pictorial history of the theatre. A sweet old man.

National Theatre programme presented to NJT by Getachew Debaleke

Later, I chatted to a man who oversaw several Ethiopian dance troupes – he had taken them all over Europe. He grinned at me:

“Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

I stared back, puzzled.

He giggled: “Oh yes, I read your English writers. Your Evelyn Waugh. His book called ‘Scoop’? Mr Waugh makes many funny jokes about Ethiopia. I like him. Up to a point, ha ha!”


Ibex Hotel entrance

Next Week on May 1st 2018 – the final episode in Ethiopia.

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