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Obituary: Derek Walcott

Derek Walcott. Photo: Jorge Mejia/Wikimedia Derek Walcott. Photo: Jorge Mejia/Wikimedia

Derek Walcott decided to become a poet at the age of eight and published his first poem at 14 – to find it denounced as blasphemous. The criticism persuaded him he had chosen a suitable vocation to pursue, and the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992 offered public affirmation of his conviction.

Born on the Caribbean island of St Lucia, Walcott’s writing encompassed theatre and journalism. In a career spanning eight decades, his writing remained rooted in the rhythms of a life defined by his childhood, and the subsequent sense of dislocation and exile stirred by his travels abroad.

His verse play, Henri Christophe, named after the slave who played a leading role in Haiti’s independence, was seen at the British Council, London in 1953. The Sea at Dauphin and Malcochon, or Six in the Rain were performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1960.

It wasn’t until the late 1970s that his stage profile in Britain began to develop in earnest, with Pantomime and Remembrance at the Keskidee Centre in north London. Pantomime was revived by Alby James’ Temba Theatre Company in 1985. The following year, St Lucia’s National Theatre brought Ti-Jean and His Brothers to London’s Commonwealth Institute.

Remembrance, a poignant portrait of a father struggling with the death of his son during a riot, was seen at the Arts Theatre in 1987 and again, with Norman Beaton as the grieving parent, at the Tricycle Theatre in 1990.

Depicting Rastafarian squatters in Kingston, Jamaica, Walcott’s play O, Babylon! was staged at the Riverside Studios by Talawa Theatre Company in 1988, and Beef, No Chicken was at the Shaw Theatre the following year. It was revived at the Tricycle Theatre in 1997, when The Stage described it as “the Caribbean equivalent of an Ealing Comedy.”

Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, Walcott’s retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey was directed by Gregory Doran in 1992 before travelling to Jamaica.

The Capeman, a collaboration with songwriter Paul Simon and choreographer-director Mark Morris, about a 16-year-old Puerto Rican gang member sentenced to life for a double murder, led to his sole appearance on Broadway, with the poorly received production lasting just 68 performances in 1998.

A decade later, in the first full staging of an opera at Shakespeare’s Globe, he directed Dominique Le Gendre’s version of Seamus Heaney’s The Burial at Thebes (itself a reworking of Sophocles’ Antigone) in the theatre’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

His adaptation of his epic poem, Omeros, starring fellow St Lucian Joseph Marcell, was seen at the same venue in 2015.

Above all, Walcott was a prolific and admired poet, publishing 17 collections between 1948 and 2014, as well as seven other books.

Derek Alton Walcott was born on January 23, 1930 and died on March 17, aged 87.

 

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