With his booming voice, roaring laugh and swaggering walk it’s easy at times to forget that Tobi Bamtefa is playing one of the cruellest despots in African history. Known for his corruption, human right abuses and ethnic persecutions, the former Ugandan President Idi Amin is not a character to be liked. And yet, in this adaptation by Steve Waters, his humour gives him an undeniable charm.
Directed by Gbolahan Obisesan, The Last King of Scotland is set across Amin’s eight-year reign in 1970s Uganda following a successful military coup to overrule Milton Obote. Initially he is welcomed by Ugandans and viewed by the British as a valuable ally. But soon he begins to isolate his country – first by expelling Asians who refuse to take Ugandan nationality, then by declaring economic war on countries failing to bring wealth to his country. He compares his leadership to the likes of Napoleon and Stalin and prefers to count Colonel Gaddafi as an ally over any western nation.
As with Giles Foden’s novel of the same name, Amin isn’t the play’s only protagonist. Nicholas Garrigan (Daniel Portman) is a totally fictitious Scottish field doctor who is called out to treat a sprained wrist after the president crashes his red Maserati into a cow. Despite being interrogated and, at one point, having a gun held to his head, Garrigan is given the dubious honour of becoming Amin’s personal physician. Initially his duties comprise of little more than treating Amin’s thunderous wind (by placing a wooden bat across his abdomen and getting him to touch his toes, in case you were wondering…).
However, with such care a sense of trust is borne by Amin in Garrigan. Yet their friendship lacks development, making it difficult to understand why Garrigan is loyal in return – particularly given the early indications of the fear Amin elicits in those close to him. Indeed, when asked why he even stays in Uganda, Garrigan’s answers are vague; he is drawn by his love and optimism for the country – none of which we see. It can only be assumed he turns a blind eye in order to focus on his job, clinging to his Hippocratic oath when asked by British diplomats to spy on Amin. But his willingness to become complicit in the regime by turning communications officer is perplexing.
This is just one in a series of plot holes in the play regarding Garrigan in particular. Be it the random fishing trip in which he unsuccessfully attempts to seduce a British diplomat’s wife, or the journal he manages to leave lying around – despite us never once seeing him write in it – to weakly advance the plot.
Bamtefa does all he can to hold the show together. His performance is outstanding as he seamlessly transitions between hilarious and terrifying: one moment boasting about his appearance in a kilt for his wedding to his fourth wife, the next threatening the Archbishop who is refusing to marry him.
However, the fear of Amin’s regime is distinctly missing for most of the play – kept at a distance by stylish yet excessive TV news bulletins. The most emotional scene arises when Amin’s second wife Kay (Akuc Bol) and fellow doctor Peter Mbalu-Mukasa (John Omole) plead unsuccessfully with Garrigan to conduct an under-the-table abortion to prevent the president from discovering the couple’s affair and killing them both.
When Amin’s full sadistic horror is revealed it is ultimately too heavy-handed: bookshelves theatrically rotate to reveal bloody torture chambers, and prosthetic severed heads and limbs are dolled out. The Last King of Scotland possesses strong performances, but it struggles to deliver the coherent drama that the dictator’s disturbing reign demands.
Featured Image: Helen Murray