Fear, through the eyes of a child, is very different from that of an adult. The stakes are different when you can’t grasp ‘life or death’, the consequences of actions are not fully realised when you can’t grasp the bigger picture and comfort comes more simply, in the crook of a mother’s arm or a full belly. But every child is afraid of the dark.
Nicholas is only 4 years old when his mother bundles him into matatu Mabel ‘to see Grandma and Grandpa’. But the bus only stops to let unfriendly people on, men, and boys with guns. The year is 1978 and mother and son’s real destination lies much further from their loved ones, over the border, any border they can cross out of Uganda and the clutches of Idi Amin’s dictatorship regime.
This true and eye-opening story tells writer Nick Makoha’s own story of how he came to the UK. It is one the first visits in his highly acclaimed debut poetry collection Kingdom of Gravity (2017), which went on to be listed by The Guardian as one of their ‘books of the year’. Whilst this work told more stories of this Ugandan era as a whole, The Dark is a more intimate and personal work that blends his imagery-rich poetry with the story of his journey, some of it told as an adult and some of it from a child’s eye view. Strands of stories without endings wind away like roads leading off in all directions, where Nicholas cannot follow.
Nicholas’ child’s eye view sees him spy the glass eye of the old man on the bus, kick a football with a child soldier and… forget. Memory is fallible, it can and does fail us. Perhaps especially when there are things we would rather forget.
A hand held radio is intelligently integrated into the sound design of the piece along with slides and projections to keep us up to date with where and when we are, but this is not a history lesson, it is a human story. The luggage rack looms large, hung above the dusty stage, stuffed with the only personal possesions the bus’s occupants could carry. What would we take? What do we truly hold dear? It begs of us, as it sways slightly on its ropes.
Michael Balogun and Akiya Henry bring the characters of the matatu to life with an almost child-like cartoonishness that brings a lightness and laughter to the darkness. Akiya Henry sucks her teeth and struts as a Ugandan soldier, belts orders into a radio as a rebel fighter with conviction, comforts Nicholas with a tender song as his mother and raises the roof with peals of laughter as the ‘biscuit lady’; to call her versatile just doesn’t do justice! She is a master of character acting – but keep up! It can be a fast paced ride with so many stories to tell.
Balogun slips between child and adult Nicholas with sensitivity and his wisely judged wide eyes of wonder give way to eyes of deeper knowledge and understanding. Under the direction of award winning young director Roy Alexander Weise, who’s National Theatre production of funeral-comedy Nine Night has just transferred to Trafalgar Studios, it is no surprise that when we see through the eyes of Nicholas we can laugh in the face of what we might otherwise find sad or frightening.
The Dark asks us to consider our perspective, the lights that loom large in our lives and how we are reaching towards them. There is pain and horror all around, just out of sight for Nick, but it is the sacrifice of Nick’s mother that shines through like a light in the darkness. Sure enough in the programme notes adult Nick reveals, this is for her.