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A pair of white Zimbabwean farmers are shocked when a man from the government arrives with a purchase order in this new drama
May Sumbwanyambe’s first play airlifts the audience into a remote hilltop farm Zimbabwe. Violent militia gather outside as a government men tries to persuade a stubborn white family to sell up. But Sumbwanyambe’s text is richer in atmosphere than incident, evoking the sultry tensions of the hot summers of 1990s political tension – with none of their burning heat and fury.
You can almost feel the heat rising off Max Dorey’s gorgeous set, its sun-bleached wood suggesting the beauty and harshness of the landscape that this farming family can’t bear to leave. Sweating in his suit, Charles has his work cut out. Stefan Adegbola plays the government man with gentle wit, trying to coax Guy into swapping a fat cheque for a farm his family has owned for generations.
Someone could write a taut thriller with these ingredients – a politicised drama with all the wide open spaces, tense negotiations and underlying menace of a classic Western. But director George Turvey’s skill in marshalling four strong performances can’t hide the undisciplined feeling of a script that feels baggy, even over a short 80 minute span. The female characters are thin cartoonish outlines – ruined mother Kathleen hides her alcoholism using the far-from-impenetrable disguise of drinking her gin from a teapot, while daughter Chipo is a firebrand who’s incapable of questioning her own white privilege. And Guy and Charles deliver set-piece, fact-filled speeches to each other about the nature of independence without their opposing point of views ever interlocking.
But what the play does achieve, admirably, is to understand the psychology of white people who are adrift in a changing Africa – and to treat them with compassion, as the ground wears away under their feet.