History repeats itself

Brecht's satire on the rise of Hitler is still sharp enough to mock such 21st-century tyrants as Rob

Last September I returned to Zimbabwe for the first time in nearly five years. My original plan had been to visit friends and family, but shortly before the trip began, I was invited to collaborate on a "Zimbabwean" take on Bertolt Brecht's The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by David Farr, artistic director of the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith. So my journey home also became a research trip.

Brecht's darkly comic allegory, written in 1941, charts the rise of Adolf Hitler, transposing the action to Prohibition-era Chicago. Ui, a gangland boss, seizes upon uncertainty in the vegetable trade and offers protection to the "Cauliflower Trust", in the interests of maintaining peace and stability. In no time at all, he takes over Chicago, crushes opposition and looks beyond the city limits to expand his "protected" territory.

Throughout the play, Brecht's rage is palpable. His disgust is that of an individual, possessed of reasonable morality and intellect, watching a society sleepwalk into the hands of thieves, thugs and opportunists. The parallels with contemporary Zimbabwe are illuminating: Robert Mugabe's government has given "veterans" of the liberation war (some of whom were not even born when independence from Britain was achieved in 1980) the authority to intimidate an ever-disgruntled populace in the build-up to elections this March, in much the same way as the Cauliflower Trust gives Ui's gang free rein over the streets of Chicago. The treason trial of the opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, in which the "star" prosecution witness, Ari Ben-Menashe, was exposed as a government stooge, echoed the warehouse fire trial in which Ui's malcontents condemn an innocent man in order to legitimise their reign of terror.

On the journey back to Zimbabwe, my insides felt like the spin cycle on an industrial-sized tumble dryer. I believe myself to be a man of considered and rational temperament, but a steady diet of CNN and BBC exposés (largely conducted from across the border in Johannesburg), combined with indecipherable missives from loved ones, had led me to expect a living vision of hell. I am from a generation of Zimbabweans who had the world at our feet: economic growth, education and ambition. The rate of decline in recent years is all the more painful for us.

Yet when I arrived, it seemed that nothing had changed. The airport ground crew, resplendent in their greasy fluorescents, still carried themselves with that haughty air of Karanga superiority. The arrivals hall was as I remembered it: a lone police officer, menacingly silent; the ubiquitous portrait of You-Know-Who hanging above. To portray such elements on a stage always feels false to me: as if every waking moment were accompanied by a tragic Greek lament. The truth is that, in today's Zimbabwe, the sun still shines and everyone appears to go about their business in that characteristically laid-back, firm-handed, dignified way.

The changes are more subtle. Harare Airport is no longer the hive of international travel it once was. The duty-free shops are all but empty. On the drive into the city, the once-cacophonous metropolitan hum of traffic has diminished to barely a whisper. Look closer still and you see that the vleis (open fields by the side of the road) are overgrown, almost consuming the urban spread. Everything feels hollow and drained. To talk about politics seems futile, compared to the search for the next meal and the next dollar.

In these circumstances, my loved ones cobbled together a veritable feast in honour of my return, but despite the laughter and the joy, I was left with a sense of impotent rage. It was the same fury and fear that had accompanied my departure a few years earlier. Perhaps Zimbabwe is a living embodiment of the Theatre of the Absurd.

I realise now that it would be far too easy to don a toothbrush moustache, riff on the obvious similarities between two self-styled demagogues and be satisfied with that. It would be easy to turn our production into a worthy protest piece, but Arturo Ui is a parable, and to make it anything else would be to do the play and ourselves a disservice. Our take on Arturo Ui refers to elements of life in urban Africa, but it avoids being too specific, so that the parallels and echoes resonate beyond the strictures of a particular regime, individual or historical era.

Zimbabwe may be foremost in our thoughts, but the message doesn't stop there. At one point, Ui reinvents himself in order to appear as "the little man's image of his master". This calls to mind the spin-doctored, photo-op politicking of Tony Blair and George W Bush: anything to maintain an image of stability and fraternity.

Years ago, world leaders said: "Never again." I only hope that we can place a gentle reminder in the ether that the battle against tyranny is far from over; that corruption and totalitarianism are as rampant now as they ever were; and that whatever our language, colour or creed, we are still incapable of seeing the suffering of others as our own. And maybe we'd also like to lampoon a few old friends along the way.

"The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui", starring Lucian Msamati, is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, from 14 February to 15 March. For bookings and further details, log on to: www.lyric.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation