ON THE DEATH OF KEN SARO-WIWA, BY KEN SARO-WIWA
Contact Theatre, Manchester
Single performance 31 May, 1996

Ken Wiwa's introduction to this one-off performance, staged in collaboration with the Censored Theatre Project, recounted months of communication through clandestine channels with his imprisoned father, ending when a computer floppy disk containing this short story reached him a month after Saro-Wiwa's execution last year. Wiwa, who has no doubt that the work is that of his father, composed on the laptop conveyed to him in prison, gave an address which was simpler and more direct than that of Manchester Contact Theatre's artistic director Benjamin Twist, who attempted to put the performance into the context of broader dramatic policy but achieved the unfortunate opposite effect of insular pomposity.

Ken Saro-Wiwa's arrest and execution on fabricated charges have become infamous as a high-water mark in the sordid chronicle of successive Nigerian military régimes the exiled Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, in the audience last Saturday, may have reason to fear similar treatment were he to remain openly in his homeland. This 35-minute piece illuminated both the general and particular aspects (respectively, the petrochemical rape of Ogoniland and Saro-Wiwa's own ordeals) with brilliant clarity, but the starkest question it raised was: what kind of man, in anticipation of his own violent and unjust death, could write about it with such a mixture of straightforwardness and humour?

Dealing with the oppression of the Ogoni by the Internal Security Task Force, he explains wryly: "A Security Task Force must first create Insecurity; this becomes a Task, against which Force must be used to make Security secure." He portrays government machinations as the policies of a kind of Absurdistan, where detectives detect only what they have been ordered to detect such as Saro-Wiwa's involvement in murders for which he had no motive, when he was miles away, travelling in the opposite direction under escort and where his burial (which he imagines as a reporter) is attended by oil companies "to give the funeral of the little man an international flavour."

The balance of amusement and grimness is a delicate one, and Saro-Wiwa never lost it, even when detailing the point at which he gave up the ghost: "I was advised to do so by the Ghost himself," in a dream dialogue with a personification of military genocide. Andrew Francis performing on a stage bare save for a table, a chair and a dim naked bulb captured the appropriately muted, sardonic delivery of the tale, but through a combination of under-rehearsal and nervousness at the expectations surrounding this event, fluffed his lines with increasing frequency, growing more flustered with each successive hesitation.

The afternoon contained elements of memorial, of campaigning (we were invited to engage in discussion after the performance with representatives of Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, MOSOP), and tribute to the Censored Theatre Project, but the predominant impression was one of quiet celebration of "the little man". We left understanding why Ken Wiwa, having been unable to bring himself to read his father's final work for a week after receiving it, found that after finally doing so he felt "happy".

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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