61st Post: 3rd ZIMBABWE – The Colossus of Roedean

NJT at the Bulawayo Theatre

The Africa Diaries


 1995 August: Monday

Anne drove me back to the city and into a large open space called Centenary Park. My venue, the Bulawayo Theatre, was located right in the centre. It was an impressive building that Anne said was constructed to resemble a miniature version of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre at Stratford-on-Avon. On its left hand side there was a small, almost dry brook, presumably trying to double up as the Avon.

On the broad glass frontage of the theatre a small poster Blu-Tacked to one corner read: ‘NEIL TETLEY’S OSCAR WILDE’. It seemed that I was not yet a household name here – only the tea was.

My initial contact Roy was waiting to take me on a guided tour of the interior – the auditorium capacity was 330, the seating was comfortable, and the acoustics were noticeably good. The only problem was that the stage was large – far bigger than I needed or wanted.

Stages this size provide a problem for the one-man show. I once saw Sir Donald Sinden’s solo performance as Oscar Wilde in a London theatre. The director, the usually excellent Frank Dunlop, tried to use the whole stage – at one point, he actually had Sinden dancing around it. Quite apart from the fact that Oscar wouldn’t have danced to save his life, the whole thing looked absurd. Also, it’s a bad idea to clutter the stage with props – the actor ends up looking like a rat in a maze.

The key thing is to keep the action small, whether by limiting the acting area with scenery or by clever lighting. In this case, I decided to use the apron stage at the front and close the main curtains behind me. With this added proximity to the audience, it could provide an element of intimacy in what was a relatively large space.

The tour continued backstage – this was a real theatre with carpentry rooms for props, and two enormous dressing rooms. One of them could easily accommodate two rugby teams. Roy said that there was a backstage rule of ‘no alcohol’. He had been here when the grand old Scottish actor Andrew Cruikshank performed. Each night as Cruikshank emerged from the dressing room he would stumble over the props – and dared Roy to complain.

After a quick introduction to the lighting techie, an intelligent-looking woman called Sheila, and to the assistant stage manager, a quiet young man called Jeremy, Roy led me back to meet Anne in the theatre bar. It was crowded with local Rhodies, including a row of tall muscular young sportsmen leaning at the counter.

As I entered, the place hushed and a phalanx of curious eyes swivelled my way. One of the sportsmen piped up:

“Hey, it’s Oscar Wilde! Keep your backs to the wall, lads.”

I gave an unconvincing laugh at this shaft of Bulawayan wit. Then one of them came up to me and, with a breezy smile, declared:

“We don’t like poofters around here. But we’re coming to see your show. Just to get up Mugabe’s nose.”

NJT at the Bulawayo Theatre

‘8pm: Back at the house in Burnside, Anne introduced me to her partner Jim. He was about sixty, had originated in Ireland, but had spent most of his life working in the shoe trade in Zimbabwe. Footwear was big business here – the leather from all those dead cattle was a useful raw material. Over dinner they advised me to visit Victoria Falls while I was so close. Jim said that it was possible to bungee jump over the Falls for free if you did it naked – but only if you were female. Anne added:

“It’s surprising how many girls do it.”

On reflection however, given my schedule there was no chance of getting there. This seemed to be the norm on my travels – to get within striking distance of world famous sights and then not see them. In Ethiopia I had missed the churches of Lalibela; in the Deep South I missed New Orleans; and now in Zimbabwe, I was going to miss the Victoria Falls.

One thing I noticed about domestic life here was that they seemed to live in the utmost luxury and yet they had very few modern household amenities like washing machines, etc. It was as if the technological revolution hadn’t happened. But then I suppose the black servants were the washing machines. Anne confirmed that servants were very important in Zimbabwe society.

“I’d rather die in my bed than make it.”

‘9pm: My hosts retired for the night. It seemed that everybody in this country got up at 6am and went to bed at 9pm – not quite my hours, to put it mildly.

I mulled over the situation in the bedroom. It didn’t sound too good for tomorrow – only six advance tickets had been sold. Also, I couldn’t find out who was running the theatre. No one seemed to be in control, except for Meryl – and she was in Germany! Also, I couldn’t see what they had done with the £100 I had sent to cover publicity. All I’d spotted were three mis-spelt posters.

‘11 30pm: Looking out of the window, I could just see an inevitable security guard out on the road; also the security lights carving their separate beams into the blackness. Then, as I prepared to sleep, I heard Tandy the Bull Boer scampering under my window. He gave a bark. It was answered by another dog about a mile away. Then another, and another, and another. All across the Burnside suburb, came the different pitches of barking. Even Bitza added the odd howl.

An hour later the cacophony was still continuing – I supposed that they never really stopped. The price of security. Despite it all, fell asleep about midnight.

The Bulawayo lodgings

1995 August: Tuesday

‘9am: I was woken earlier by the dogs but had dozed off again. Lay awake in bed and listened to some rather odd birdsong. One had a wavering ‘coo’ that sounds like ‘Arapaho, Arapaho’.

Another was a shrill whine which was either a dying vulture or something had gone wrong with the electricity transformer.

‘10 30am: A gorgeously hot day. Sprawled by the swimming pool and relaxed. Totally clear blue sky – birdsong – at one point, the distant drone of a light aeroplane – peace. It was difficult to remember that I was performing tonight.

I skip-read one of Anne’s books – a history of Zimbabwe.

In a nutshell:

First inhabited by Bushmen – then the Shona tribe invaded it from the north – the Great Zimbabwe Empire reached its height by 1500 – the empire became weakened by internecine wars between 1570 and 1700 – some European influence arrived via Portuguese traders.

Next – the Matabele tribe fled north to evade the Zulu chief Chaka and took over much of the country in 1838. Cecil Rhodes, believing the country might possess gold, sent his men to conquer it in 1890. A vicious bush war began in the 1960s, culminating in African independence in 1980 under the seemingly permanent rule of the Shona Robert Mugabe.

Bulawayo lodgings – the pool

‘12 30pm: While eating lunch with Anne, I noticed what looked suspiciously like two large mosquitoes landing on the surface of the pool. With a light laugh, I mentioned that it was a good job there was no malaria in Zimbabwe. Anne shook her head:

“Oh, there IS malaria. There’s been an outbreak here this summer.”

With a certain amount of teeth-grinding, I remembered that I had donated all my anti-malarial equipment to Martin back in Harare.

Anne fanned herself: “It’s getting hot and it going to get a lot hotter from now on. It gets so bad, October is known as the suicide month.”

The talk drifted to politics and inevitably to Mugabe.

At one stage, it seemed, that if you wished to buy a foreign car, you had to pay quite a large import duty tax. This money was collected and stashed in the name of Mugabe’s wife. When she died, it was discovered that the money had been sent to her relations in Ghana and was irrecoverable. Mugabe went absolutely berserk on hearing this news and smashed every window in the Presidential Palace. He then flew to Ireland to recuperate for three months.

Anne told me a further story concerning the iniquities of Mugabe’s rule. A few months earlier, he had commissioned the building of a hockey stadium in Bulawayo at the cost of 52 million Zim dollars – this in a country that only had eight hockey teams. At the opening ceremony, two of these teams, not realising that it was a ceremony, had turned up to play a practice match. Mugabe took great offence at this insult and banned them from playing. They now had to practice in Australia – and the Zimbabwean hockey world had been reduced to six teams. In the meantime, the vital irrigation link from the Zambesi River to the south, a project that would have cost only 30 million dollars more than the stadium, had been ignored.

Anne: “It hasn’t been done because this is Matabele land and the Shona don’t care if the Matabele die or not.”

She told me that corruption had been endemic right from the start of independence but that now the International Monetary Fund had stepped in to keep an eye on it. However, their influence had not been entirely benign either.

Under the advice of the IMF and the World Bank, the Government policy had been to discourage the growing of the staple crop of maize in favour of growing crops like tobacco for export. Now, with the drought, Zimbabwe was having to buy subsistence crops such as maize abroad, using their foreign exchange. Yet again, the financial experts had screwed things up.

Bulawayo lodgings – the pool

‘6pm: As I walked into the theatre, I was saluted by a huge security guard. My entry into the bar galvanised the drinking crowd into a flurry of whispers. “Is that him?” I stalked on through to the auditorium.

The back stage crew were in position and Roy had brought along his wife Priscilla as further support. They really were a delightful old couple, originally from Kentish Town in London. I talked Roy through the music cues.

Suddenly I realised that I’d left behind a crucial prop – the photo of Wilde that prompted my first line of ‘One should not play Narcissus to a photograph.’ Roy and Priscilla scoured the cavernous backstage area for a substitute. Priscilla found an old publicity still of a Bulawayo amateur playing Freddie Eynsford-Hill in ‘My Fair Lady’.

It would have to do. So, for one night only, Freddie Eynsford-Hill would be playing understudy to Oscar Wilde. I just hoped the audience were short-sighted.

‘7 30pm: Peeped through from the wings – about fifty audience – better than I’d expected but it still looked a bit sparse. Roy gave me the signal cue and the intermezzo from ‘Cavalleria Rusticana’ sounded out in yet another country.

As I got into stride, it became obvious that the acoustics here were brilliant. I was so used to battling against low ceilings or absorbent walls or any other of the myriad sound traps, that it was a real joy to play this theatre. I fluffed some lines but not too badly and there were some big laughs. The ‘jail’ sequence went really well and the applause was good at the end. A satisfactory show.

‘9pm: Retired to the bar where a young Australian invited me over to his table. His girlfriend was a very tall sporty-looking English girl with a clarion voice. She looked like John Betjeman’s ideal woman – Miss Joan Hunter-Dunn in person – the Colossus of Roedean.

Not surprisingly she turned out to be an international tennis player, while the Australian was a pro hockey player. As was the young girl sitting beside them. Another woman at the table, aged about fifty, was a pro tennis coach. A Chinese couple also present were pro table tennis players. As they knew little about Wilde or theatre, and I knew little about sport, especially hockey and tennis, the conversation flagged.

Despite this, I could tell from the buzz around the bar that the show had gone well.

‘9 30pm: Anne arrived to take me to dinner. As she and Jim were not coming to the show until the last night, they’d spent the intervening time in the bar and had definitely quaffed a few snifters. As we climbed in the car I asked whether there were any breathalysers in Zimbabwe. Anne puzzled for a moment, then answered quite seriously:

“Well, I suppose there might but I’ve never thought about it really.”

I reckoned they should have had a sign at the outskirts of town: ‘Bulawayo Welcomes Drunken Drivers’.

In spite of the dangers, their attitude reminded me of the 1960s in Britain and I rather liked it – it was the itch of anarchy.

Next week on Tuesday July 31 – the Banning of Fred Selous.

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