“‘Some may come for the comedy and find matters of interest in the political detail; others might come to hear more about this obscure yet vital story and stay for the humour.”’
Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller, writer and director, promises a spiking witty and epically political piece of theatre in this interview on his Fringe show Chagos 1971.
How would you describe your show in 3 words?
Sharp, cheeky, engaging.
Tell us a bit about your show.
Based on true events, this play shows you a day in Westminster in 1971 when five government officials crafted a truly bizarre method for carrying out a massive removal of the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago. Through a blisteringly fast-paced and comedic approach reminiscent of Armando Iannucci’s The Thick Of It, this show tells a story that has plenty of relevance today and harrowing implications for both British and American neo-colonial history. This show can mean a lot of different things to different people. We have tried to make it both a raucously funny politically-tinged dark comedy, with regular punchlines and character bits sprinkled in to keep the audience laughing, and a searing, uncompromising condemnation of British and American negligence and abuse with regard to this unbelievable true story. Some may come for the comedy and find matters of interest in the political detail; others might come to hear more about this obscure yet vital story and stay for the humour. I wanted it to be extensively informative but also very funny, and it’s a testament to the actors that you can hear so many details in this show delivered alongside some hilarious comedic performances. If you’re into breakneck-speed comedy and/or real-life political intrigue – all wrapped up in a sheen of 70s style and music – you will like it!
What brought you to this show specifically?
The story is simply so horrible I did not believe it was real when I first learned about it. It was in a course about the end of the British Empire; a classmate did a presentation on the expulsion of the Chagossians and I went home that day and researched this topic for hours. It is a truly unbelievable matter. In 1971, less than fifty years ago, Britain and the US teamed up to expel 2,000 people from a small island chain in the Indian Ocean so the US could build a base; shockingly few people today know that this happened, and even fewer know the unconscionable acts these countries carried out to expedite and complete this removal. This play focuses on one awful chapter in this story, in which a decision was made that is so absurdly over-the-top that I thought only a comedic approach could do it justice. How could people possibly come up with a plan like this? Chagos 1971 is a fictionalised attempt to answer this question (fictionalised in only a few places, however, as all of the external details in the play are completely true). I wanted to bring this kind of show to the Fringe not only so people would simply hear about the atrocities that happened but also to explore how approaches other than straightforward ‘serious theatre’ can tell vital stories in creative ways.
This is not your first visit to Fringe, how is your Fringe experience with Chagos different to previous year?
This has been a delightful experience, both because the cast and crew are fun and exciting people to be around and because this show provokes fascinating conversations and reactions every day. We have started telling the audience after the show that they can come and talk to me if they have any questions or reactions they would like to discuss…, and the feedback has been marvellously interesting. My previous shows were more conjured, more based on my imagination and the combination of existing genre templates to do something more in the realm of artistic commentary rather than political engagement; this year, Chagos has given me a unique chance to employ both. This year feels like we are making theatre that directly informs and starts genuinely essential conversations about current political issues where information is the first step towards resolution. Nothing against the more abstract forms of conversation that stem from many shows around here, or that I have worked on previously, but it is certainly an eye-opening experience to make something that people feel has given them something new and concrete to think about. Hearing people’s reactions and seeing their shock and curiosity afterwards has been one of the most exhilarating aspects of Fringe I’ve experienced. I look forward to it every day.
What has been the most challenging part of the show so far?
Through various reasons, I have become quite a multi-hyphenate on this show. I’ve written and directed it as well as operated the sound and lights every day. This has involved learning many new technical skills which is challenging from time to time but has been more fun than I anticipated at the outset. Of course, another challenging element is convincing the audiences this is indeed a comedy. If you see the show you will notice by the end of the first scene this play is not afraid of depicting some bone-chilling actions and dialogue. The second gut-punch comes when people remember this is based on true events. Thankfully, people seem open to the balance we have managed to strike between making them laugh and making their blood [churn], but I can occasionally sense some who find it all too disturbing, which can be a tense mood until the lights go up. Then again, I think everyone comes out of it understanding that to hold back on the darker side would be a disservice to the truth.
What has been the best moment so far?
The best moment was the first day the audience truly stopped the show with their laughter. Like any show, we needed a number of performances to get the humour calibrated just right, and once we did, and we really got that first audience in stitches, it was a magical moment. The cast has started adding little bits in that have brought in more laughs and more layers [and] the audiences have been sold out every day for over a week. Since we got the formulas right, it has been an electric experience getting back to that razor-sharp comedic rhythm for every show.
Has there been a moment that has surprised you?
Certainly, many. The standout has to be one of the days our show struck a more sombre note with the audience and the reactions afterwards were fascinating. Something about that day (perhaps it was the rainy weather, perhaps something in the actors’ performances that felt more emotionally heavy than usual in certain scenes) made the reactions afterwards more heartfelt than usual and speaking with audience members was a really sobering but interesting time. Some people stayed after for a long while discussing the true story with me and we discussed at length how this could have happened, and what we and this play can do to inform more people about this subject. That was a surprisingly heartfelt moment and has influenced how I see this show’s potential quite a lot now.
Did you tour or preview the show? If so, how was your experience?
We did not specifically [do a tour or previews] for Fringe, but we did perform the first iteration of Chagos in January at Bedlam Theatre as part of Bedlam Festival. This was a great experience which had a sold-out audience and garnered us an exhilarating five-star review that injected this project with some serious momentum. I am very glad to have had the smaller time frame to put together the first Chagos performance at Bedlam because we had to boil this showdown to its bare essentials to test audiences’ reactions. Thankfully, they were generous and encouraging so we carried on!
Why is this show so important and what does it do differently to other shows?
This show is a reminder of both the inexcusable atrociousness of the British Empire and the exciting artistic potential when combining and remixing genres. The Empire stands as a confusing cloud of rewritten history and muddled tales of alliances, partnerships, abuses, and betrayals that have been remarkably underappreciated in larger society. I wanted to make a piece of theatre that not only skewered this pathetic lack of understanding of Britain’s own horrifically abusive history but also did so in an unpredictable and engaging manner. Most shows I have seen tend to take one approach or another, either political excoriation or comedic satire; it is often left to films to combine them. Chagos attempts to put this electric and disarming combination onstage.
This story is developing very rapidly in the real world. After I had written the playback in the fall, the International Court of Justice ruled on the matter, leading the UN to rule on it earlier in the year. The Chagos Islands are now a hugely important hotspot for current discussions of neo-colonialism and international justice – for that reason alone this show is an important experience to seek out.
What does your show bring to Fringe specifically?
Our show brings a bite-size, detail-heavy, engagingly comedic summary of a seriously bizarre chapter of history that is not only unique but also of extreme contemporary relevance. It is a political story told in a theatrical and creative way, which will make you laugh as well as make you learn. And also, it’s written by a half-Black, Jewish, dual-national guy so you’re supporting diversity at the Fringe as well by seeing it!
What is next for the show/you/your theatre company?
We are bringing Chagos to London’s Katzpace theatre in September (8th-11th), which we are all very excited about! I will then be starting a Masters in Film Studies at King’s College London for a year, and possibly studying directing in the near future. Black Bat will carry on as well, perhaps with new work in 2020!
What can the audience expect when they come to your show?
A bizarre but true story, some exhilarating dialogue between an exciting but morally dubious cast of characters, and a unique play from an up-and-coming theatre company that appreciates your support!
Chagos 1971 is on at ZOO Playground 3
At 4:10pm until 26th August
Book tickets here
Image: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller