Chagos 1971, written and directed by Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller, and showcasing some of Bedlam’s finest talent, premiered on Friday 25 January to a sold-out audience. Armando Iannucci-inspired political satire interlaced effortlessly with more sensitive and serious portrayals of Enoch Powell era racism and authoritarianism, define this dramatization of a shockingly true story, not yet confined to or explored by history.
As a voice-over and written commentary explain, albeit a little untidily, the play focusses on the events between 1968 and 1971 when the British and American Governments executed an agreement to allow the American military to use the British island of Diego Garcia in the Chagos Archipelago. In order to remove the local populace, the British Government resorted to the ridiculous and inhumane idea of killing their pets as a threat. The visual cue of bloody hands at the end which shows the three soldier characters as having killed the pets is unexpectedly misleading, however, as the animals were killed using the fumes of navy vehicles. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate, and more effective, to end the play with the howls of dying creatures haunting the perpetrators. Nevertheless, the portrayal of the one real-life character in the play, the bigoted imperialist Sir Bruce Greatbatch, is accurate by all accounts.
The action thus commands the respect of the audience as it is grounded in reality. In fact, it is almost too grounded, with the characters stuck in the same room, sedentary, for most of the 1-hour long play. However, in the spirit of 12 angry men, as alluded to by Angus Bhattacharya in his portrayal of the irritable American admiral (“We were all slaves in the land of Egypt”), the static nature of the story does nothing to make it less engaging. The conflicting ambitions of the characters strain the relationships between them, especially that of Sarah Yerland, played by Katrina Johnstone, and the not so stiff upper lipped Terry Douglas, played Giorgio Bounous, as they react differently to being let down by the outdated system they are struggling to uphold.
An innovative structure characterised by chronological disruption acts a reminder for the importance of historical reflection, as it highlights the deterioration of moral principles and civility, and forces the audience to draw comparisons with contemporary governmental failures such as with the Windrush generation and Brexit.
At a time when both present and past governments face greater scrutiny than ever before, Chagos 71, with the aid of an abundance of comedic talent from the cast, throws the weaknesses of individuals and institutions into light relief without forgetting their disastrous consequences.
25th January 2019
Image: Wikipedia Commons