It is with a slapstick argument about pooing in a bucket that Andrew Whaley’s play about colonialism, independence and memory starts. Two men, Chidhina and Jungle, and a woman, Febi, are in a prison cell in Zimbabwe in 1986. They have been in a brawl. In a proto-Blasted explosion (Rise and Shine was written in 1990) the back wall of the cell collapses and a man shrouded in filthy cloth appears, silent at first and then claiming to be a freedom fighter by the name of Comrade Fiasco.
Fiasco has been hiding in a cave for eight years, unaware of his country’s independence. The relaxed and playful attitudes of Febi, Chidhina and Jungle are at odds with Fiasco’s paranoia and his arachnid leaps around the cell. Abdul Salis plays him with an intensity that mismatches the absurdity of the others’ performances. Whaley never allows the play to be too serious. Through silly role play, what Jungle calls ‘investigations’, the three of them try to find out who Fiasco really is. They revel in the childishness of it, arguing about who gets to play the inspector. While they argue the toss about suicidal fruit, Fiasco seems to be wrestling with a major psychological episode. Fiasco also refuses to join in the make-believe games that the other three play; while their narratives are rooted in the imaginary, his is grounded in truth. While he is experiencing the trauma of reintegration with society and facing up to the fact of independence, they are just messing around.
In this sense, the cell is a microcosm of the nation and a metaphor for its independence. While Fiasco faces that gasp and raw, cold air of (re)birth – the shock that a newly independent nation faces in having to start anew, having to forge a new identity – the other three, representing colonialists in a sense, still try to manipulate him and they undercut the solemnity of freedom with trivial games and petty arguments. They are the MPs in the House joking and jeering while they fuck the poor.
The enclosed walls of this three metre square prison cell may seem for its inmates – or for the playwright – like a limitation; in fact, the setting gives its inhabitants the greatest freedom. The three characters are obsessed with names, but identity doesn’t really seem to matter in the cell. They can be anyone, anywhere. The cell is a metonym for the black box of a stage, the blank cube nestled within the Gate’s performance space a visual synecdoche. What do you do with four blank walls? Make a theatre. What do four bored people in black box do? Put on a show.
Whaley prods at the wounds left by colonial influence; Chidhina and Febi laugh when they find out that Jungle’s name is George – ‘George! Peter!’ they laugh, sarcastically noting how concise and convenient these British names are.
It’s difficult to tell whether these characters are reliving, re-enacting or simply making up episodes from the past. The narrative deliberately misleads and misdirects, so that meaning is difficult to grasp. But, fatally, the characters are too slippery to maintain 90 minutes’ interest. Each of them works as a symbol, but none (excepting, perhaps, Gary Beadle as Jungle) as a person. Although, in the moment, it comes across as a dense mass of political allegory that defies interpretation, Whaley’s play bears scrutiny and benefits greatly from a few days’ rumination and disentanglement.