The Big Interview … Paul Burgess

What’s On Stage, 14 April 2009: The Big Interview … Paul Burgess

Daedalus Theatre Company’s A Place at the Table, looking at the repercussions of the assassination of Burundi’s President Ndadaye in 1993, opens this week at the Camden People’s Theatre (15 April to 2 May). Katie Blemler recently caught up with the show’s director/designer/producer Paul Burgess to find out more.

Could you give us a brief history of the events that occurred directly following President Ndadaye’s assassination? 

President Ndadaye won the 1993 election. He represented the Hutu majority. But he was killed by the Tutsi military elite who wanted to hold on to power. This led to reprisals against Tutsis and a cycle of violence which evolved into civil war. Our play looks mainly at the coup and its immediate aftermath, including the Kimiba massacre where many school children were burned to death.

Most of those involved have since been brought into the political process and a democratically elected Hutu-dominated party is in power. However, there are still some rebels and the violence is by no means over. The division between Hutus and Tutsi, which led not only to years of violence in Burundi but also the Rwandan genocide is pretty complex and isn’t going to be solved by peace deals alone. It’s also really too simple to say it’s just ethnic – it’s also to do with class and tradition.

I’ve read that Daedalus has joined forces with campaigners, eye-witnesses and journalists to create this production. This detail, combined with the tagline ‘Theatre can go where politics and the media cannot’, makes me wonder whether the journalists wanted to get involved with the project in order to express truths about the situation that they could not express through reporting – is this so?

The journalists and campaigners have been involved in an advisory capacity, or have provided texts. The main two are Richard Wilson, whose sister Charlotte was killed by rebels in Burundi, and Désiré Katihabwa. Richard, his sister and I were at school together and the idea of the play came from a book he wrote about her death. Désiré is a refugee who had to leave Burundi as he has spoken out against the violence on both sides. They are both very keen to increase awareness about Burundi, so I think that was their primary reason. However, when they’ve been in rehearsals they’ve been involved in exploring the issue of what theatre can say that ‘politics and the media cannot’. They were more involved in the start of the process – more recently they’ve let us alone a bit more to explore the more abstract parts of the show. How was the final script for A Place at the Table created, was it a collaborative effort between Daedalus and the journalists?

We’ve done some of our own interviews, plus worked from a variety of books, reports, blogs and articles including writing by an amazing Burundian journalist called Alexis Sinduhije, who spent most of the last few months in prison for criticizing the current government. The cast have also written their own responses to the material.

We spent a lot of time in the rehearsal trying out various ideas for how to edit it all together. The journalists have been more involved in the overall picture of what we should say and separated fact from fiction. Towards the end of the process I’ve acted as editor, creating a final version of the script. There are also some sections we’ve deliberately left open so the cast have a bit of freedom during the show – something I am always very keen on as a director.

Were specific actors brought in for this production, or is it comprised of Daedalus regulars?

Daedalus is a mixture of regulars and new people. There’s no ‘official’ acting company but when a collaboration works you tend to want to stick with it! However, for this show we made a deliberate effort to find performers of African origin. Only one of the cast is an old hand.

The background information for Daedalus says the company was developed in 1994 and has performed shows in Oxford, Edinburgh Fringe and Glastonbury Festival. Is Daedalus still a touring company, or is it based in London now?

We were never a touring company but we’ve never had a home either. It’s always been a matter of looking at each show individually and deciding the best venue for it. However, this is our second show for Camden People’s Theatre who have given us the most incredible support. So I hope it won’t be the last! We’ve changed a lot over the years too – we used to be more about written texts and now we’re much more live-art influenced and experimental simply because that’s territory that we as artists wanted to explore.

I watched the YouTube trailer and was intrigued by the rehearsal table set-up, it seemed to create an intimate space that would allow the audience to feel more involved in the show. For the performances, will the stage be set-up similarly, with the actors gathered around a long table? How is the audience situated in the venue?

Yes – everyone is round a long table, which means everyone is in the front row! We were keen on intimacy and also making everyone feel comfortable and included. Also, the starting point of the show is the UN Security Council’s report of Ndadaye’s assassination and in rehearsals we found the set-up of a UN conference was a good way of linking the different parts of the show.

Acting as not only director but also designer and producer, what has been the greatest challenge you’ve had to face during preparations for this production?

The biggest challenge has been about how to use the texts – it’s really important to be respectful of people’s testimonies but we also have to make an engaging show and follow our some of our more creative instincts. Also, there’s so much material – we could easily have made a three hour show instead of what we’ve limited ourselves to, which is a bit over an hour.

The play discusses not only the 1993 assassination of Ndadaye, but also touches on the aftermath, which resulted in a Civil War, and also the Rwandan genocide, and the prevalence of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.Does A Place at the Table acknowledge the current genocide taking place in Darfur? Is there any correlation between the ’93 assassination and the events that are occurring in Sudan?

This is a massive subject. The Democratic Republic of Congo is more directly relevant than Darfur insofar as many Burundians are involved and much of the conflict involves Hutus and Tutsis. However the enmity between these two groups is echoed elsewhere in Africa in the divisions between peoples perceived as coming from the north and being more ‘European’ and those who are considered to be Africa’s older population. This is very dangerous territory and there are a lot of theories based on very out-dated racial theories – but sadly these things still hold their grip.

We don’t deal with it in the play but the conflict in Darfur between ‘Arabs’ and ‘Africans’ tragically echoes this pattern, though like so many of these situations the struggle for resources and power are probably the real culprits. It also saddens me that having failed to intervene in Rwanda, we in the West now dedicate lots of media time to hand-wringing over that, while repeating the same negligence when it comes to the tragedy unfolding in Darfur/

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