Drama in treacherous territory

Can western theatre ever tackle the subject of colonialism without replicating its inequalities?

Colonialism is a fraught subject for drama. Any attempt to put it onstage will meet with a swarm of questions – not least among them, simply: why? After all, no one is on the fence about colonisation. Its consequences are held to be calamitous and far-reaching and, as moral dilemmas go, it has been consigned to the past tense – a product of its historical moment.

But theatre director Max Stafford-Clark is clear about his motivation for engaging with colonialism: “I happen to think history is important,” he says. His career has been threaded with plays on the subject: Our Country’s Good, Cloud Nine and now Richard Bean’s Pitcairn, which opens at the Chichester Festival Theatre in Sussex on Friday August 22.

Bean’s play follows the mutineers of HMS Bounty, who in 1789, led by master’s mate Fletcher Christian, left Tahiti to settle on Pitcairn Island with a throng of Tahitian men and women in tow. Christian attempted to set up a new societal structure, stripped of old naval hierarchies, but, in the process, sparked a bloody insurrection by the Tahitians that left only one of the white sailors alive.

Undoubtedly, all this makes ripe material for drama. Bean lists the story’s dramatic virtues, from its “trapped situation” on this “lump of rock one mile by two miles in the South Pacific” to the very real pressures faced by people who “have to survive both nature and each other”. It is, he says: “A great opportunity to write a play about stripping mankind down to his naked urges.”

What Bean and Stafford-Clark see in all this is a story of the human condition. “It’s a story of utopia turned into dystopia,” says the director; the simplistic moral being that “all power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Bean, meanwhile, sees it as “a question of how we might live with each other”.

But Pitcairn raises another question too: how to stage a colonial narrative without replicating the same power dynamics in the process? The nature of Pitcairn’s plot means that, onstage in Chichester, white men will play dominant roles, while east Asian women (Polynesian actors are hard to come by in the UK) are consigned to roles in which they are subjugated. For a long while, the director intended his female actors to spend the play topless in the name of historical accuracy. Bean and producers from Out of Joint – Stafford-Clark’s theatre company – had to persuade him otherwise.

The same problem becomes more apparent in Brett Bailey’s Exhibit B, showing at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival until Monday and moving to London’s Barbican in September. A performance installation, Exhibit B seeks to replicate the ethnographic displays or, put another way, the human zoos of the late 19th century. Black actors, cast locally, are arranged in tableaux, like museum exhibits. One stands in for a Namibian woman scrubbing skulls in a concentration camp. Another, half naked, is surrounded by stuffed gazelles. How much agency do these participants have? Do the quotation marks of re-creation really dispel the dangers of objectification?

When Exhibit B played in Berlin two years ago, it drew such a sizeable protest that its producers scheduled a public debate. There Philipp Khabo Koepsell, a local spoken word artist, challenged Bailey outright: “If you have a white South African director giving orders to black performers to tell their story, voicelessly, you’re not breaking the legacy. You are enforcing and reproducing it.”

Wrapped up in that, then, is the implication that some people have more right to tell these stories than others – that postcolonial literature belongs to the subjugated rather than the colonial power. Accept that and you have to question Pitcairn, which presents a white British playwright’s version of Tahitian men and women, who speak in pidgin English.

Bean is unrepentant. In fact, he thinks that the critics’ position perpetuates the idea of the “noble savage”. “Let’s not idealise them,” he says. “Some of them were idiots.”

Playwright Arthur Meek is more queasy in this regard. A white New Zealander, he feels that it would be presumptuous to write a story about the Maori experience of colonisation. “I’m not a writer who insists you can’t write outside of your own experience,” he says, “but if I was going to write about Maori, which is a very complex culture, I can only do so from a Pakeha perspective.” (Pakeha is a Maori term – once pejorative, now less so – for a New Zealander of European descent.)

In On the Upside Down of the World, playing at the Edinburgh Fringe until Monday, Meek focuses on Mary Ann Martin, an Englishwoman who in the mid-19th century recorded her experiences of the Maori in a journal. She is a very particular choice of protagonist: “A very unlikely pioneer; a disabled woman who is forced to come to New Zealand.” Not, in other words, your typical vision of patriarchal authority. The play preaches understanding and, above all else, the importance of a common language.

“Colonialism is still a part of our history that we’re working through,” Meek says. The treaty of Waitangi, signed by the British consul and the Maori chiefs in 1840, has been broken at various points, and settlements of redress have been ongoing since 1985.

At the same time, the term Pakeha is still up for grabs and has become a key part of the country’s multicultural identity. Where it once referred to white New Zealanders, that’s no longer the case. As Meek explains: “The concept of Pakeha draws a wide variety of backgrounds into a common sense of identity.” There is, in other words, something particular and present-tense at stake.

Even so, Meek insists that perspective is key: “An outside eye is important, but acknowledging that it’s an outside eye is a good thing.”

That reflexivity is what marks out writer-director Gbolahan Obisesan’s work. He recently directed Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play We Are Proud to Present . . . and, in October, will open one of his own plays, How Nigeria Became, a play for children at London’s Unicorn Theatre. Both deploy the same strategy: they present the telling of a colonial narrative, rather than just presenting the narrative itself. How Nigeria Became, for instance, shows a native theatre company narrating a mythic version of its country’s history while negotiating the censorial presence of a colonial authority.

Obisesan believes that “the narrative should always be in the hands of the indigenous, the people whose story we’re trying to tell.” His chosen approach makes that possible, while also acknowledging the obstacles and power dynamics that intrude on it. In this case, that means a propagandist pressure “to project more of a utopian idea of the new Nigeria and what it should represent”, he says. The result is a play that critiques its own perspective; but also one that tries to keep both the pros and cons of colonialism in its sights. As Obisesan says, these stories “come with a lot of responsibility”.

‘Pitcairn’, Chichester Festival Theatre, cft.org.uk, August 22-September 20

‘Exhibit B’, Playfair Library Hall, Edinburgh, eif.co.uk, to August 25

‘On the Upside Down of the World’, Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, edfringe.com, to August 25

‘How Nigeria Became’, Unicorn Theatre, London, unicorntheatre.com, October 9-November 9

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