An eccentric leader sweeps to power, promising to put his countrymen first. His leadership is initially welcomed with dancing in the streets, but as the leader’s behaviour grows more bizarre, racial groups are expelled from the country and violence increases while the people surrounding him are forced to question their own behaviour.
The parallels between Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, though more an exercise in historical fiction than a factual work, to today’s tumultuous political climate are unmistakable.
Steve Waters’ stage adaptation is inevitably a different beast to Kevin Macdonald’s 2006 film, but the story’s power remains undimmed.
Gbolahan Obisesan’s production is dominated by two figures: Idi Amin (Tobi Bamtefa) and his unlikely confidant, the young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (Daniel Portman).
Bamtefa is nothing short of extraordinary as Amin: entering the theatre from the stalls, shaking hands with the audience, full of bonhomie and charisma, but slowly becoming more erratic, unpredictable and dangerous.
Portman has the less showy role as Garrigan, but is equally impressive, looking increasingly tortured as he becomes ever more complicit in Amin’s crimes.
Obisesan directs with a stylish flair, adding video projections at regular intervals to recreate Ugandan state TV news, and creating striking visual motifs. A scene towards the end places Garrigan in front of an entire wall of skulls.
Obisesan also handles the switches of tone extremely well: one minute Amin is walking around in an astronaut’s outfit, touting himself as the first black man on the moon, the next he’s holding up a severed head.
There are some notable differences to Macdonald’s film: in the stage version, it’s another Amin confidant who has an affair with one of his wives, not Garrigan. That means there’s no graphic recreation of the film’s infamous ‘meat hook’ scene, yet the moment at which Amin truly displays his real menace is terrifyingly staged – Bamtefa ranting in front of a dismembered corpse while two of his enemies slowly hang to death either side of him.
Rebecca Brower’s stage design beautifully recreates Amin’s palatial residences, and the colour and vibrancy of 1970s Uganda shines through.
The main problem is that Waters’ adaptation never properly explores the friendship between Amin and Garrigan. It’s unclear why the latter would so easily throw his lot in with the Ugandan dictator.
Yet that doesn’t dilute the piece’s power or detract from its ability to challenge: if those who fail to learn from history are indeed destined to repeat it, this should be required viewing for anyone with an interest in international politics.