The Fall demands attention from the opening refrain right through to its closing 80th minute. Performed by an ensemble of seven, The Fall documents the action taken by University of Cape Town students to remove the statue of Cecil John Rhodes, a symbol of white oppression, from their campus. The production uses song, testimony, news footage and dramatised debate, as well as snatches of physical theatre, to depict several clashes with the authorities.
The campaign to remove the statue was a response to the prejudices of a university in which black lecturers are more likely to be denied tenure and black cleaning staff are all but invisible; where the administration fails to address the chronic state of student poverty in which many of its black students live and where lecturers continue to deliver a flagrantly Eurocentric curriculum.
The world may have been looking elsewhere in 2015 when the statue was removed, but this play gives us a private glimpse of the movement behind it and the various schisms that developed inside it. While these schisms managed to work in concert as long as there was a common goal, once the statue came down there was an immediate outpouring of grievances. Questions were raised about about the lives of female and queer black students, along with concerns that the removal of the Rhodes statue would be empty gesture not backed by real change. The overarching goals of the group also came under scrutiny – how far should the process of decolonisation go, and should the next step be campaigning for free education for all?
The play ends on a strident note of yearning for further progress, leaving the audience to peel away from their seats on a high. And as they made their way out of Edinburgh University’s magnificent New College building, they may or may not have stopped to consider the irony of their locale: Edinburgh University has its own history of white middle class privilege, while the chosen performance space of the Assembly Hall was used to host the famous Edinburgh 1910 World Missionary Conference.
On a similar line of thought, we may also wish to cast out eyes southwards – not nearly so far as South Africa but to Oxford University, which in 2014 (the year before the demonstrations in Cape Town) took in only 27 new black students and which, despite the fierce #rhodesmustfall campaign, refuses to pull down its own statue of Rhodes.
Is there a chance, perhaps, that one day I might be reviewing an English version of The Fall?
The Fall is on until 27 August 2017 at the Assembly Hall. Click here for more details.