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African tyrants go on trial in Zurich theatre

Wole Soyinka's play criticises dictators from Africa and elsewhere

(Keystone Archive)

An African adaptation of French playwright Alfred Jarry's mythical "Ubu Roi" had its European premiere in Zurich on Wednesday. The production of Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka's "King Baabu", supported by the Swiss authorities, takes an ironic and comical look at Africa's dictators.

The play is set in an imaginary African country and tells the story of a military man, Basha Bash, who seizes power, then tries to become a civilian ruler.

Basha - which means empty - is a cowardly tyrant who, out of fear, does away with enemies and friends alike. He isn't just a plain vanilla dictator though; he is also manipulated by his wife Maariya, a Yoruba mother figure with an eye on the bottom line.

The play was presented in Nigeria, Soyinka's homeland, at the beginning of the month. It was the first production by the playwright to be staged there since he left for exile in 1994.

According to Soyinka, the play puts tyrants from Africa and elsewhere on trial. "King Baabu explores the seemingly endless bestialities that have become the hallmark of Africa's dictators and the savagery of civil wars ... (caused by) their interventions in democratic life," said the 67-year-old author.

Writer was imprisoned

This is not the first time that Soyinka, who won the 1986 Nobel literature prize, has taken on the continent's dictators. Since the late sixties, the writer has often been at odds with Nigeria's leaders, spending part of his life in prison or in exile.

"King Baabu" draws on the author's experiences under the late military ruler, Sani Abacha, but also casts an eye on other African potentates.

"Despite the recent falls of several dictators, King Baabu has lost none of its topicality," said Niggi Popp of Swiss production company, Nawao Productions.
"After all, similar figures remain in power in many other countries."

The English-language production should appeal to non-African audiences. "The play's universality takes the mind beyond Africa's borders," said Soyinka.

Another of the author's plays criticising Nigeria's politicians, "The Beatification of Area Boy", was staged in Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe in 1996. Nawao Productions was behind "Area Boy" then, and is again supporting the latest production.

The Swiss Development and Cooperation Agency and the Swiss Arts Council - Pro Helvetia - have offered financial support to stage the play. The technical crew is Swiss, while the cast is mix of 10 Nigerian and British actors.

"King Baabu" runs until Sunday at Zurich's Werfthalle theatre as part of the International meeting of independent theatre companies.

swissinfo with agencies


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