Review: Chagos 1971 at ZOO Playground - Playground 3

Britain is quite hushed about its imperial past. Just over a century ago it ran the largest empire in human history; the societies of over a fifth of the world’s population were plundered for their culture, labour force, and raw materials. And yet – despite a growing curiosity – characters and narratives from the empire are largely absent from British arts and media. 

Chagos 1971 shows how entertaining the important work of breaking this silence can be. It dramatizes the meeting in Whitehall that devised madcap plans to depopulate the former slave colony Chagos; an island in the Indian Ocean Britain promised to the USA for them to build a military base. The only problem was the island’s inhabitants had no intention of leaving.

After several tense hours of discussion, Her Majesty’s Government decided the wisest course of action would be gas the island’s much-loved population of dogs to death. How they came to the conclusion this would convince the Chagossians to leave is a mystery; one that the play explores imaginatively.

For fear of bad optics, the UK’s Heath administration didn’t want to touch the issue. And so it fell to an alcoholic colonial governor of Seychelles; Bruce Greatbatch (Agnus Bhattacharya), a hapless civil servant (Giorgio Bounous), and their two deputies (Katrina Johnstone and Sophie Boyle) to devise a plan with the brash US Navy Admiral Elmo Zumwalt (Michael Zwiauer). Spoiler alert: gassing the dogs didn’t work.

It’s a timely play. Chagossians have faced decades of ill-treatment from the British, but that may soon be changing. In May this year the UN-backed a motion condemning Britain’s occupation of Chagos Island by 116-6. 

Writer-director Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller is an Edinburgh student, and discovered the story after a classmate’s presentation. The more he researched, the more bizarre and sordid the details became. For example, the UK offered the Americans an alternative island, near Madagascar, but it was rejected due to environmental concerns. 200 wild tortoises considered more sacred than 2000 human beings. 

This sharp play has a keen sense of 70’s London, colonial racism, and stiff upper lip hypocrisy. Pitch perfect satire in the Windrush scandal era.

Chagos 1971 is at ZOO Playground – Playground 3 at 4.10 pm until the 26th

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