Oxford students take Greek theatre to Zambia

The most unusual piece of drama I saw this summer was also strangely conventional. It consisted of a few scenes from Timberlake Wertenbaker’s translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyranos, thus following the traditions of Greek Theatre which are possibly the oldest extant rules of theatre as we have them. However, performed in the second largest classroom of Flying Angels School, a charitable foundation set up in Ngombe compound outside Lusaka, Zambia, the performance was a revelation to both actors and audience.

Over the summer I helped organise and take part in a three week summer program at this school, teaching both the junior and senior students a variety of subjects not dealt with by the usual curriculum. Flying Angels is a community school, an institution set up by Bernard Sakala, a local man, to help deal with the shocking lack of provision of school places by the Zambian government. In Ngombe compound there are an estimated thirty thousand students, but the one government basic school there can take only one thousand. Another nine thousand are educated in community schools like Flying Angels, of which there are dozens. Bernard is also responsible for a hospice and an orphanage on the same site as the junior school, and many of the students at the school are orphans.  The buildings are plastered breezeblocks, with a corrugated iron roof and the occasional glass window. Charitable donations over the past few years have equipped it with a boundary wall and electricity, but it remains a basic arrangement of a handful of classrooms, one of which doubles as a local church. I was lucky enough to teach most of the drama during the summer school, and the range of performances was astonishing. In the junior school the younger students, aged from about eight to fifteen, devised their own, sometimes harrowing, dramas along the lines of the Zambian practice of moral, instructional performance. The children could produce scenes from a few moments to twenty minutes long at the drop of a hat, drawing on a wide variety of scenarios that more often than not reflected their own experiences with HIV and AIDS, death and Christianity.

However, one of the principles on which the summer school is run is that of a cultural exchange, and so with the older pupils I endeavoured to cover some of the history and practices of Western theatre. For that purpose I had the three copies of the Sophocles trilogy I had scrounged together just before I left England, and twenty extracts from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The students had never held scripts before, and though they quickly caught on to their purpose, they rather neatly decided to copy down their own parts onto scraps of paper and preserve the full texts for consultation – a wise move, since all three copies of the Sophocles were falling apart by the second lesson after being opened by so many enthusiastic hands. The Shakespeare I eventually abandoned, the language proving too much even for the oldest and brightest students, but the Sophocles had won their minds. Explaining the traditions of Greek theatre to British A-level students is tough – I know, I can remember being nonplussed when my frustrated teacher attempted to explain non-naturalistic gesture for the umpteenth time – but when faced with a class who have never heard of Ancient Greece and only know the Romans through Biblical references it seems an impossibility. In a country with few theatres, describing the shape of an amphitheatre is daunting, and etymology is a step too far, but other ideas came far more naturally than they might to an English student bred on the naturalistic drama that makes up so much of the television, film and theatre around us.

Whenever they were performing the students projected their voices with a skill any OUDS member would envy, and exaggerated their physicalities entirely in line with the grand gesture of Greek theatre. There was none of that coyness of physical expression that confounds Western teenagers when they try to act – the students, particularly the oldest class who range from nineteen to twenty four, committed themselves fully to parts they had only been introduced to minutes before, from the sultry sway of Doris’s hips as she entered as Jocasta to Elias Sakala’s impressively oratorical Kreon. The work of the chorus was sublime, grasping in one hour the play between synchrony and diachrony that makes a good chorus so interesting to watch.

Of course, setting Greek theatre within Africa is not a new idea, and Moira Buffini’s play ‘Welcome to Thebes’ restaged Sophocles’ doomed family in Central Africa at the National Theatre in London earlier this year. There the tragedies of Oedipus, Antigone and Kreon were played at a political level, and the intrusion of the USA in the guise of Theseus of Athens provided an interesting sandbox for questioning ideas of democracy and independence, particularly how independent a young African nation could be from its recent (and ancient) past. Parts of the play worked, parts didn’t, and the marriage of Africa and Ancient Greece seemed a little rocky. Perhaps that was because Buffini largely ignored the way the action of Sophocles’ tragedies strikes closer to home in some African countries.

It was immediately apparent that the students of Flying Angels found a lot in Oedipus that they could relate to on a personal level. In the moral dramas some of the students performed for us, one of the most prevalent topics was incest. Uncles-turned-rapists featured prominently, often casting out their nieces later to become orphans. Given the number of orphans in the school, watching these educational dramas was eye-opening and extremely uncomfortable. Even more closely aligned with the plot of Oedipus was the motion of a debate I saw at the school two years ago, which asked what the proper course of action was if you unknowingly married your sister. In a country where children are regularly separated from their parents and siblings by orphanhood, the lack of local education available and the need to seek an income early, these are not simply theoretical discussions. Watching these students, some of whom already have children of their own, bring the same cultural context to Oedipus added new levels to the parallels Buffini had observed.

The idea of divine punishment also struck a chord, though the students of Flying Angels are largely all Christians of various denominations and had never heard of Zeus or any of his fellow Olympians. They could easily and willingly grasp the idea of an intervening divinity though, and that defying the Gods could prove swiftly calamitous. I steered well clear of that most controversial theory of Greek tragedy, the fatal flaw, partly out of deference to m’learned Classicist friends but mostly because the crimes of Oedipus, Antigone and Kreon, namely ignorance, fanatical religion and hubris, ignoring the murder of Laios, are precisely the kind of personality tics Zambians tend to tolerate and forgive.

Admittedly, many of the points that made this particular Oedipus so stunning to watch were accidental and slightly distinct from the actual performance. I couldn’t have known beforehand that Oedipus’ line “Don’t you realise you need popularity, money to rule?” would be delivered by a nineteen year old preparing to vote for the first time in a country riddled with corruption and tribal politics. The cultural collision was only partly conscious on my part beforehand, and had none of the careful deliberation of a play like Welcome to Thebes. There was also something exhilarating in knowing this was the first time one of the world’s greatest tragedies had touched this corner of Lusaka, and that I had helped bring it about. But just because it wasn’t intentional didn’t mean it had no power. Plays like Oedipus have an extraordinary reach across time and space, and pupils like those of Flying Angels have just the right willingness to take on the challenge and make them their own.

Frankie Goodway