The Africa Diaries
1995 August: Tuesday
‘9 30am: Woken by the telephone. Felt decidedly rough as I lifted the receiver. It was Margaret phoning from Bulawayo:
“Can I come up and see you on Thursday. Prince Edward is on a state visit to see ‘Evita’ at the Reps Theatre. And it’s the Harare Show on Friday.”
She added that so far there had been no review of my show in the Bulawayo press.
“I think they might be running scared of Mugabe’s anti-gay campaign.”
Retired to the garden to drink tea and nurse the hangover. An enormous black insect took a shine to me and stayed hovering for half an hour – it was the size of a flying match box.
Occasionally I felt a flush of extra heat. Somebody had told me this was common. The temperatures on the Zimbabwe plateau were really odd – these sudden bursts of heat, then sudden chills. People were forever catching colds because of it.
Tried to think ahead to the situation in Johannesburg. I’d got a six-night run at a venue called the ‘Theatre on the Square’. One big problem was that I’d got to find my own accommodation and by all accounts the city was not an easy place to hang out. With an average of thirty five killings a day, it was the current world capital of murder. On the plus side, it also had the reputation of being the most sophisticated city in Africa. I rang up the administrator and left a message on her answer-phone.
‘6 20pm: Arrived back at the Alliance Francais and set up the stage with the techie Rodwell. There was a quiet feel to the place tonight – Tuesday was never a good night anywhere.
‘7 30pm: I was right – there were only twenty in the audience. Gave a rather cold first half, then turn it up a bit in the second. ‘Jail’ went well and the ending was reasonable – it was helped by a good laugher out front.
The theatre was an odd place to play – the ‘dead air’ sensation. Still, the show was competent and the audience were really excellent. Two curtains and some of them continued clapping almost till I was back in the dressing room.
‘9pm: Packed up my gear, bade farewell to Rodwell, and handed over 150 Zim dollars. He gave me a long serious look as we shook hands:
“I enjoyed your play very much.”
‘10pm: As thanks for their help, I played host to Gil and Jackie over a decent evening meal. We drove off to the La Francais restaurant, reputedly the most exclusive in Harare. It was packed out with businessmen and assorted tobacco farmers. It was a very smart joint – all suits and ties, and no denim. I was suit-less and tie-less and, of course, wearing denim.
The maitre d’ looked askance as we entered. Gil took him to one side and explained that I was the ARTISTE – and therefore perfectly entitled to look like the contents of a rag and bone cart. The maitre d’ nodded subserviently and bowed us to a table.
1995 August: Wednesday
‘10am: As Gil and Jackie were leaving for a holiday at Lake Kariba tomorrow, the promoters of tonight’s show were housing me for the next three nights.
Gil drove me over to the new abode on the far side of Avondale. He tooted the horn and two security guards opened the 12ft high gates. The house was a pretty Portuguese-style bungalow, faced by a luxurious terrace populated mainly by caged budgerigars. A fountain played in the middle of the freshly mowed lawn.
My new hosts were Ann and Alan, an ex-pat couple in their late fifties. Alan had been the director of the main Reps Theatre for twelve years but now worked in architecture. He was a quietly charming man, but given to long silences. These conversational gaps, however, were more than filled by his exuberant wife Ann.
Ann was currently employed in selling re-constituted typewriters.
“Basically, we have to work in order to afford servants.”
A strange logic – why not just do the household chores oneself?
She added: “What everybody really wants is a UK income and a Zimbabwean life style.”
We took lunch out on the terrace – it was served by two black servants. In the background, the yard boy continued to clip the hedges. As we eased back after the meal, the elderly maid came out to clear the debris. Ann ticked her off quite sharply because she’d brought the coffee in a teapot. Shame-faced, the maid shuffled back to the kitchen.
It struck me that, while so outwardly English, in some ways the Rhodies were different. To the modern English, it was genuinely bad manners to be rude publicly to servants – here, it seemed to be the norm.
I suppose that in any case I’d never felt comfortable about the whole master/servant relationship. It seems to breed dependency in the master and resentment in the servant. I suppose sometimes it works out over the years, but it’s still an unnatural state.
Another thing I’d found strange throughout the tour across Zimbabwe was that the whites indulged constantly in openly racist criticism of the black character and habits, while the black servants were busy waiting on them and very much in earshot. The Rhodies seemed to regard them as in the UK one would regard dogs – they were present but not capable of understanding what was being said. It was a weird sensation. No wonder the country seemed to be a breeding ground for hate.
However, more importantly today, there was a show to fix. Ann said that she’d had to order more seats for the venue – we were sold out. Also, the two foremost theatre critics in Zimbabwe were coming.
‘5pm: Drove into the forecourt of the New Club. It was an attractive low-rise building that had been constructed by the businessman ‘Tiny’ Rowland of the Lonrho (London-Rhodesia) Corporation back in the 1960s. Inside, it was light and airy with a huge bar. A vast and very flattering photograph of Robert Mugabe dominated the lobby – rather ironic considering the attitudes of most of the clientele.
Through in the main dining room, Alan was trying to set up some theatre lighting. He gave a lugubrious sigh:
“When I was at the Reps Theatre I had a fully computerised system. Here, I’m reduced to a single plug.”
Alan really knew what he is doing but we only had two spots and some back lighting to play with. Did a short line run-through.
‘7 15pm: Felt in quite a bullish mood tonight – I wondered how this would translate into performance? A man strolled into the dressing room, sat down, and started to chat. Assuming he was the stage manager in charge of the stage call, I relaxed back.
Suddenly I heard the music of ‘Cav. Rust.’ in the distance – bloody hell, I was meant to be on stage. Hurtling out of the room, I ran along the corridor, and barged my way through a group of club staff clustered at the door of the auditorium.
Gathering as much laid-back cool as possible, I meandered through the dining tables and reached the stage. The place was full – at least 100 at the tables, plus another 20 standing at the back. Settled easily into the flow and could feel energy pulsing into what was becoming a powerful performance.
The audience was more restrained than usual – this was the Harare upper-crust – but the jokes went well. ‘Venus de Milo’ got a roar – they were on my side. The jail sequence was excellent – the best on tour so far. The only problem was that the main spotlight took a slow but irreversible swing to stage left. Instead of lighting me, it was blazing into a far corner. But the last section worked like a dream and ended with a real flourish. Took three curtains to great applause. It had been a knockout show – perhaps not up to that great last night in Bulawayo – but touched with magic all the same.
Later, I tried to nail why two of the best performances of my career had happened here in Zimbabwe. It had to be down to the audience. The whites settled here in Edwardian times, then were boosted by emigration in the 1950s, then cut off from modern trends to produce a weird version of ‘olde England’. They realised their world here was fragile and looked instead to an idealised mother country that in fact didn’t exist anymore. With the Wilde show, for an hour they could pretend that it did.
Left the dressing room and walked out into a swarm of audience in the foyer, amongst them the two critics that Ann had mentioned. Both were complimentary about the show, adhering to Oscar’s dictum that ‘dramatic criticism should consist of unqualified approval’.
One of them added: “You seem to have carried out the least publicised tour of Zimbabwe ever made by a professional actor.”
Well, a 100 quid budget doesn’t go very far, mate – even in Zimbabwe.
Moving through an almost ceremonial glow of handshakes and well-wishing, I was led to the dining room and seated as guest of honour in the heart of the Harare smart set. Unwisely, I started to drink whisky as an accompaniment to every course, and my tongue overran discretion.
“Do you think that the whites will really try to make a success of Zimbabwe or will it remain forever the Home Counties?”
It was actually a pertinent question, but not in this context. More like an impertinent one. An embarrassed silence fell around the table – it appeared I had trodden on some important toes.
However, my stock still seemed high in one particular area. A glorious blonde show jumper pressed her address card into my hand. Then when I stood at the end of the meal, a tall woman with a very pretty face strode up, kissed me full on the lips, and asked:
“Are you of that persuasion?”
Presuming she meant gay, I shook my head.
She added: “Well, what’s your phone number then?”
“Er…. I don’t know, actually. I’m in transit.”
She pouted and stalked off. Wow, these Zim girls didn’t waste time!
‘11pm: As Gil and Jacqui were leaving town tomorrow, they suggested a last drink at a bar called Sam Row’s. This turned out to be a fairly typical disco place with a young white set and Western music. But it produced one bizarre incident. While I was standing at the urinal, two young Australians loomed up behind me.
“We thought your show was really fantastic tonight. Could you sign this for us?”
One of them thrust forward a pen and a paper towel. Urinating while signing an autograph was a novel and quite awkward experience.
‘2am: As Gil lurched the car back to my lodgings, I insisted on halting so that I could roar out a rendition of ‘Carrickfergus’ – my theme tune. It echoed out across the Harare night.