Daniel Nelson

Sankara is like 18th



Image by benkamorvan

 century wit Samuel Johnson's verdict of a dog walking on its hind legs: "It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

It's surpising - and wonderful - that there's a play in London based on the life of the revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara.

If, like 99 per cent of the population, you know nothing about "Africa's Che Guevara", in power from 1983 to 1988, here's your chance to learn.

Writer/director Ricky Dujany takes us from the coup that brings Sankara to power to the coup that ousts him, charting the exuberant, almost indiscriminate idealism of the early days (which reminded me of the first months in office of Uganda's Yoweri Museveni), the improvements in agriculture and health, and his rousing international interventions against aid and debt and in favour of self-reliance and non-alignment. At the same time, the personal and political actions of less committed men and women begin ominously to surface, and the capitalist West and its allies start their fight-back.

There are some deft touches, such as the way policies are declared and accepted in a second: "Law done!" accompanied by two claps. The class hostility between Sankara and Chantal, his lieutenant's woman, is well-handled. Even if you did not know how Sankara met his end, you could sense how events would ravel from the moment the loyal Blaise Compaoré is so busy kissing his new girlfriend that he misses one of the "à bas" choruses ("à bas imperialism", "à bas patriarchy", "à bas polygamy"). The confrontations between Sankara and France's Francois Mitterrand and Liberia's Charles Taylor, are fascinatingly thought-provoking.

But Sankara is an indefatigable superman, a paragon (he won't even jump the queue to get treatment for his ailing father), and paragons are subjects of awe rather than interest. And though The  Cockpit's programme says writer/director Ricky Dujany was inspired by Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, with traces of Macbeth also discernible, agitprop outweighs - and ultimately suffocates - drama. Exposition begins to weigh the piece down. Even after Sankara's betrayal, his successor's 27-year regime has to be added to the stew so we can learn that he, too, is forced from office. By then, I'd had enough. It's not a great play, but I join Samuel Johnson in applauding an ambitious enterprise.

* Sankara, £16/ £13, The Cockpit, Gateforth Street, NW8, until 14 April. Info 7258 2925







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