Day Whatever of the Edinburgh Fringe and you could be forgiven for looking about as cheery as a Scottish rain cloud. Yet I departed The Last Queen of Scotland at Underbelly Cowgate bounding along the street like an over-excited springer spaniel. Combining a well-balanced and nuanced look at life as an immigrant in Dundee with a stellar performance, in many ways this is a small triumph of a play.
Its subject matter might not immediately suggest itself as provocative of an audience post-play buzz. Based on playwright Jaimini Jethwa’s personal experiences, The Last Queen of Scotland is about members of the Ugandan-Asian community who ended up in the UK after Idi Amin forced them to leave in 1972. The family came to Dundee pretty much by chance – their decision was shaped by the lack of waiting list for resettlement in the city. There’s an odd twist to the role of Scotland in the story, however, as the dictator had an obsessive fascination with the country. He would, apparently, listen to bagpipe music and he named his sons Campbell, McLaren, McKenzie and Mackintosh.
It’s the complex connections people have to a country – both the one you live in and the ones that hang in your periphery vision – that are explored in Jethwa’s play. Probably because it’s based on a real-life story (and reality rarely provides the neat narratives fiction can) the storyline shows how questions about ‘home’ and identity are not easily answered. The largely autobiographical character in the play travels back to Uganda as part of a bid to investigate her history and confront the spectre of Idi Amin who looms so large in her consciousness.
The trip, though, does not provide the picture postcard ‘homecoming’ that non-immigrants might envisage it could. Watching the play reminded me of Vinay Patel’s excellent essay ‘Death is a Many Headed Monster’ in The Good Immigrant anthology. In his contribution, Patel considers the idea of ‘home’ with regard to what happens after death. The author mentions how his relatives have so far “returned to the ‘motherland’ and had their ashes spread over the Ganges.” This tradition, he imagines, will not continue with his own death or that of his sister. “There’s no spiritual connection to some ‘homeland’ for us,” Patel writes. Going ‘home’ for people who have come to Britain or are born into families with strong connections to other countries, is in no way straightforward in death or, in the case of Jethwa’s story, life. Her final defiant claim on being a part of Scotland, during a genuinely moving conclusion, is just as important as her journey back to Africa.
Accompanied by Patricia Panther performing her own electronic compositions, Rehanna MacDonald gives a full-throttle and naturalistic performance that never drops the pace. She has the uncanny knack of switching from a heart-breaking memory to a distractingly funny description of life in Dundee with ease such that you feel mildly guilty for cackling so soon after the far more serious recollections.
As well as the specifics of the Ugandan-Asian expulsion and life as an immigrant to the UK, The Last Queen of Scotland also contains a more universal note. Strip back the details, and the protagonist’s story is also about removing yourself from the deathly negative cloud oppression of all varieties casts over you. Indeed, perhaps this is why the ending carries with it such an irrepressible note of elation.
The Last Queen of Scotland is on at Underbelly Cowgate until 26 August 2017. Click here for more details.