(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/15; The Coup, with Tony Armatrading as Black Lightning. Photograph: Ivan Kyncl/ArenaPAL.)
A Caribbean-set ‘play of revolutionary dreams’ acquires a chilling new relevance when protests confront the legacy of colonialism
Although I admired its ambition, I was sceptical about The Coup’s structure when I reviewed it at the National’s Cottesloe theatre (as it then was) in 1991. Looking at the play again, in the light of current events, has given me a whole new perspective.
Mustapha Matura, who died last year, once said that his constant aim was “to examine the effects of colonialism, political and psychological, on the colonisers and the colonised”. The Coup, which deals with a fictional revolution in Matura’s native Trinidad and Tobago, has suddenly acquired a new and chilling relevance.
The two islands have always been at the mercy of foreign invaders. Columbus staked a claim to Trinidad in 1498 and General Abercromby acquired it by force for the British in 1797. Tobago, having first been captured by the French, also passed into British hands before the islands eventually achieved independence in 1962. Given such a past, it is hardly surprising that nationhood came to seem a chimerical concept.
In Matura’s play we see an imprisoned Trinidadian president seeking to regain power by playing off the rival factions during a military uprising. But, although the play has scenes of wild farce, it is clear what Matura’s real target is: the brutal legacy of colonialism, which the president himself defines as “a loss of our sense of history”.