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Saturday, 22 September, 2001, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Showtime for African dictator
Big Dada: "We want this country to be supersonic"
By BBC News Online's Patrick Jackson

If Mel Brooks or Charlie Chaplin could make films about Hitler, why not a show about Idi Amin Dada?

The Third World Bunfight theatre company sounds like a sick joke, and Big Dada is not for the fainthearted.

In fact, the whole play is one huge joke that tickles and teases the audience before getting darker and darker until the humour drains out and reality hits home.

The satire of Brett Bailey's South Africa-based company is theatre at its best.

Not everyone will be familiar with Ugandan history but British audiences may even find it hard recognising their own Queen.

Surely not that masked figure in the slinky white dress with the tassels, swaying in her blood-stained shoes alongside the Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, as they converse with Big Dada?

Big Dada: "The bull is in charge"

The all-male, all-black cast excel at playing female roles, like the dictator's four bathing-belle wives or the Tina Turner-type rock queen who brings the house down just before the interval.

And they can just as easily transform themselves into human puppets, whether mechanically praising the man who "came to set us free" or being bounced helplessly on his knee like a ventriloquist's dummy.

It is great fun, with all the vibrancy of street theatre and colour of cabaret, and the intimacy of the Barbican's Pit Theatre makes it an ideal venue.

The compere is Idi Amin (Sello Sebotsane) himself, encouraging us to enjoy ourselves.

He even announces the interval, stepping in and granting us, the audience, our 15-minute break.

We troop out, warm and giddy from the glow of the cabaret, under the showman's spell as millions of Ugandans must have been themselves.

African tragedy

Big Dada expertly knows how to charm its audience before springing its horrors upon them.

Amin starts out as a comical "action man" doll, then becomes a grotesque figure with a face somewhere between that of a clown and a black-and-white minstrel.

Idi Amin Dada, photographed in 1978
The big crocodile himself, as the play's narrator puts it

Most gruesome of all, perhaps, is a visit to the dictator's inner sanctum where he appears in a blood-drenched parody of Michelangelo's Pieta.

The themes of Big Dada are universal - the power of the demagogue, the eternal search for scapegoats - but it is very much a play about Africa and the way it has been exploited and manipulated from outside.

Amin's regime is kept afloat by his links with such countries as Britain, Israel and Libya, and when he finally falls, it is only into the arms of Saudi Arabia.

The narrator (Michael Sishange), who provides a running commentary until he too is surreally sucked into the mayhem, suggests that if the outside world were to leave Africa alone for just one week, it would sort its problems out itself.

"We are too old for these things," he says.

"It is time for planting and sowing and watching for crows."

Big Dada - the rise and fall of Idi Amin Dada at the Barbican Pit Theatre until 29 September.

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