A shameful, but under-reported, episode in Britain’s colonial history was the forced removal of nearly 2,000 Chagossians from their archipelago home in the Indian Ocean to make way for a United States military base there. Still well within living memory, it’s an early example of how the UK’s post-war alignment with US military goals led us into controversial waters under international law, and is still a very live issue. As recently as May this year, a UN resolution demanded UK withdrawal and reaffirmed the Chagos archipelago as Mauritian territory.
Such weighty subject matter might seem to demand serious dramatic treatment, a harrowing retelling of the plight of the Chagossians at the hands of an inhumane colonial bully. In the case of Chagos 1971 by Black Bat Productions – not a bit of it. Writer and director Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller has gone the other way, and written it as governmental farce. A relatively large cast of dignitaries and officials squabble incompetently about how to deal with the ‘problem’, showing far more regard for their own careers (or in the Brits’ case, their standing with the Americans) than their fellow human beings.
As written, it plays well. There’s two particularly fractious and entertaining pair-ups. First – the plummy, hopeless English Commissioner Greatbatch (Michael Zwiauer) versus the impatient, hawkish American Admiral Zumwalt (Angus Bhattacharya). Second, the conniving, pragmatic civil servant Yerland (Katrina Johnstone) and her softer, out-of-his-depth boss Douglas (Giorgio Bounous). These tensions up the pressure in the claustrophobic office where over a five hour conference they plot in some truly bizarre and inhumane ways to force the Chagossians off their land.
However, bypassing the Chagossian side of the story means we lack a sense of quite how high the stakes are – actual human lives. There is a brief prelude and epilogue set on the island territory, but it’s not sufficient to add an effective emotional dimension.
The play is that way by intent, not oversight. The writer/director’s note on the flyer makes that clear. The company wanted to “kick the hornet’s nest of imperial history and keep a smile on while doing it”. And true, they’ve made the chaos in the colonial administration evident, pathetic and farcical, to good comic effect. As it stands, though, the play could function more or less the same with any administrative hoohah. Marry that to the real human impact of forced displacement and there’d be pathos to add to the comedy.