The Making of A Few Man Fridays

Posted on: 20 February 2012

Written by: Petia

I sat down with Adrian Jackson, writer and director of Cardboard Citizens' latest show A Few Man Fridays to chat about the process of making this ambitous project a reality and telling this very complicated true story.

Tell us the story of how you came to write A Few Man Fridays

Just over 10 years ago I was in Mauritius teaching Theatre of the Oppressed for the British Council. It was very exciting and I joined a family holiday on the end as well. I knew two theatre makers in Mauritius from previous teachings so I already had the ‘in’ to the theatre community over there. As you can imagine the theatre community in Mauritius is pretty small, it’s very difficult for anyone to make a living from theatre in Mauritius. One of my hosts at that time was a man called Henri Favori who is a very distinguished theatre maker, obviously very radical in his time. He was very passionate about the language he introduced me to, Creole, and passionate about working in Creole and establishing a Creole literature.  This was my first encounter with Creole which I found interesting.  I didn’t completely understand it to begin with, but I’m a reasonable French speaker so I managed to tune into some of it. That was my first introduction to Mauritius.

It was around that time driving around the slums that I became first aware of the Chagossian story. I must have asked Henri about it and he must have given me some version of it. When I came back to the UK I became interested in the story and started pursuing it, and had always thought it was a really important story. In the early 2000s no one knew of the Chagossians at all. They were just starting to have their court cases in this country I became heavily interested in it, thought there might be a play there, and thought it was important to tell this story.

I thought it was a good potential subject for Cardboard Citizens as I’ve always been passionate about discussing homelessness in its broadest sense, in its political context, and trying to refute the notion that homeless is a pathological condition (which is how many people in the UK look and think about it). I wanted to open up the fact that homelessness occurs, at least partly in many cases, because of economic and social conditions going on at the time.

What was it about this story that particularly intrigued you so?

Firstly, I knew nothing about it and it was about the Brits, and it was an episode of colonial history very much in my lifetime. There was an event in London which led to the separation of the Chagos islands and the creation of this new colony BIOT. The official date of the conference where the decision was made happened to fall on my birthday so I was kind of struck by that.

It is a story very much in my lifetime when growing up. I grew up under Wilson, I grew up under the key players in this story and I didn’t know about it at all, and I’m a pretty turned on person when it comes to politics and our own history.  I was staggered to discover in my lifetime that we created a new colony, the BIOT.

The other striking thing in this story was our absolutely disgraceful treatment of a whole people. Henri gave me a very interesting explanation of the racial hierarchy in Mauritius. How absolutely graded it is- the blacker the skin, the lower down the hierarchy you are. It is the same everywhere.  So what was fascinating to me was the Creole people, Creoles means black people, people of African origin. They are at the bottom of the heap in Mauritius, below Asian people, Chinese people, and of course the White people at the top. Surprise, surprise.

When the ‘ilwa’ (the people from the Chagos islands) landed in Mauritius they went to the bottom of the heap, the Creoles finally had someone to bully.

What were the attitudes of the Mauritians you met towards the Chagossians?

At that time there wasn’t a great deal of sympathy, and it’s only more recently that broadly-speaking there is a degree of sympathy.

There’s another strand of Mauritians who think that the Chagossians were compensated. They wish they would stop bleating and making noise, stop banging on about it. I guess that’s because it’s not an episode of national history they are most proud of.

Did they feel a sense of ownership of the Chagos islands?

Well absolutely! The Mauritian government position is that these are their islands and that’s what they are fighting for. The poor Chagossians in Mauritius have had to tread a very difficult line to gain political support at the same time as following their own agendas.

It is all encapsulated in their saying ‘run nu Diego, run nu Diego’ which has two meanings: give us back Diego or send us back to Diego.  It was a convenient slogan in the 70s and 80s in Mauritius as everybody could get behind it even though they meant different things. The Chagossians meant ‘we want to go back to Diego’ and the Mauritians meant ‘we want Diego back’. The Mauritian government is involved in one of the many international court cases to get it back. We come to the end of a lease in 2015 anyway but it’s a renewable lease for the islands and we’ll probably have it for another 50 years.

In the process of writing and researching, you’ve met a lot of personalities. What has their reactions been?

I didn’t know how I was going to write this play at all. I never know how I’m going to write anything. I’m happy in the end about the process we went though. We researched a lot and because of my contacts I was able to interview 3 or 4 of the really key people. I interviewed for example Cassam Uteem the only president I’ve ever interviewed in my life, an ex-Mauritian president, very polite fellow.  I interviewed him in his office and he’s actually an ex-actor. We talked at one point whether he wanted a part in it. I also interviewed Rita Bancoult, one of the leading ladies.

There were these several women who really headed the struggle, the hunger strikes and all. They thought that they would be less likely to be beaten up by men, as men would encourage violence back from the police. Of course they were beaten up on many occasions. These women did time in prison. They were incredibly brave and did these hunger strikes to draw attention to the case.

The other key woman who in the end has been critical in the whole telling of the story is of course Lisette Talate. I feel very sad about the remarkable and weird coincidence that she died  a few weeks ago, at the start of our rehearsals. I spent altogether about 6 hours interviewing her on 2 or 3 occasions; my friend Henri led the interviews. I couldn’t have done any of this without Henri because they don’t speak any English, only Creole. Also Henri was a very good interviewer for Madame Talate as he flirted with her. He’s a 70 year old man and she was a 70 year old woman, it was interesting to watch them play with each other. She was a flirtatious lady, she tried to resist. He wanted to get under her skin because she’s told these stories so many times for so many political reasons. There’s weariness there.

One of the things that was held against them in the last judgement in court was the fact that she spoke of things that apparently she could never have been present at. This is of course, a completely reductive and stupid understanding of the nature of memory and history. She is the memory of the nation, a collective memory. It is an act of cultural and political resilience that she contained and kept alive in her person the history. So that’s absolutely emblematic of the clash of systems.

The inability of the ex-colonial powers to deal with their ex-colonies, to deal with the nature of cultural difference at the centre and a deal of great stupidity, but it’s interesting to mark.

Anyway, I was lucky to interview her; I also interviewed her half brother Mico Xavier. Henri wanted us to interview someone who had done okay actually, not just to interview pure victims. Mico was a man who actually had done well, he worked on the docks. He owned a house and everything, so it was interesting to talk to him, although in the end we haven’t used that much of his material. And of course there’s Rita Bancoult and Oliver Bancoult who is the leader of the Chagos Refugee Group. He is a political figure at the head of the struggle, a very brave man.

Was there one person who led the movement to the UK, the siege on Gatwick?

Not exactly one person.  But one person who emerged here, was Allen Vincatassan, in 2002 when those who were granted full UK citizenship, arrived at Gatwick Airport and refused to leave. They stayed there for about 3 days. Then Crawley District Council took them in and put them in the Travel Inn in Crawley for about 6 months. It’s all rather farcical.

They eventually housed them and this trickle became a flood. Many people have come from Mauritius; there are about 1000 Chagossians over here now. It’s the largest community outside Mauritius. For obvious reasons there are some benefits here, some aspects of state security and so on that make it really quite attractive. For people’s children it’s the land of opportunity and the possibility to get a good education in English.

This is also one of the things that has been difficult, there’s been a kind of split in a way. Some Chagossians in Mauritius regard it as a kind of treachery. To arrive here is implicitly accepting the British ownership of the Chagos islands. All those complexities come into play.

For quite a while it might have been a pure verbatim story and I wanted it originally to be called ‘la bas’ which is what they call the Chagos islands- ‘over there’.

I did a lot of research in the public records office; it was fascinating to see those documents, the colonial records, in their original form. To witness really the way they were treated by being that close to the history of them. Being the over-educated Oxford person that I am, I could imagine it quite easily.

And finally, history has weirdly repeated itself with the creation of the Marine Protection Zone and I went to a number of conferences at which this was discussed and I saw a number of these scientists deliver their speeches.

I’m a man who loves a reef. I think reefs are things of great beauty, so I’m quite conflicted about it. I can see why people got so passionately behind the MPA, as one can only imagine the pure beauty of this unspoiled reef. A lot of dramatic personalities appeared left, right and centre. It was just a case of how can we bring all this into a story that people will want to follow.

Is this typical Cardboard Citizens? It is not site-specific, it is not Forum Theatre, what can the audience expect from this instalment?

They can expect a piece of epic theatre. Epic in many respects: the scale of the history it tells, in its ambitions for a comparatively small theatre company, a lot of video and projections in many different places.
I think people can expect a fast-moving and detailed story which will require them to have their heads screwed on. A kind of mystery starts to fall into place and we gradually solve it and take our audience with us. We hope to have a quite entertaining telling of the shocking history which is the background for the play.

It’s a play, not a piece of documentary theatre. It’s playful in many respects. There will be music and movement and our tongue is sometime near our cheek. Those are trademark Cardboard Citizens elements. I hope for an intelligent but not reverent look at this history and I think fairly sound through with irony.

The whole story is about as ironic as it gets. I hope it’s a modern and entertaining piece of theatre. It’s not site-specific because we thought it would make a change for us and it would be interesting and unusual to make a piece of theatre in a theatre. I think it will still be a very accessible and engrossing piece of theatre. There are a few occasions where it breaks the barrier between stage and audience so don’t assume it will be entirely sheltered.

It’s a remarkable story, and we’ve got loads of joys and pleasures in there from the wonderful visit of Bob Hope to Diego Garcia through to participation of Margret Thatcher and the use of a song made famous by the Alabama Boys.

This is a very politically charged show, which side of the fence are we on?

We wish to illustrate the complexity of the debate, yet of course we are very sympathetic to the Chagossians and we feel their story needs telling. But A Few Man Fridays is not a polemic, we want the audience to make up their own minds.


With thanks to

Arts Council England Lottery funded