Steve Waters on putting Idi Amin on the stage

Playwright Steve Waters has adapted Giles Foden’s acclaimed novel about Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, for the stage, now premiering at Sheffield Theatres. Here, he reflects on the process of adapting the novel, and reveals that it wasn’t until he went to Uganda himself that he realised the true extent of Amin’s legacy, and the instinct of a brutalised nation to forget the horrors inflicted on them by the ‘Butcher of Uganda’…

What is the responsibility of one writer adapting the novel of another, to the reality behind the work? When I first started to shape The Last King of Scotland for the stage, I was content to trust Giles Foden’s account of the world of 1970s Uganda; after all, he had spent many years in the country and his book bristles with evidence of serious research. Part of the power of his novel lies in its detail about that country’s history, landscape, and the shocking yet fascinating facts of Idi Amin’s eight-year reign. Surely my job was just to extract the dialogue and turn the rich prose into spare stage directions?

Yet as I got deeper into the project, I realised this wasn’t good enough. I had to have some skin in the game. After all, as the play took shape, it travelled away from its source and became its own reality. As the thrilling possibility of a production with Sheffield Theatres approached, I realised I couldn’t sit in rehearsals batting away questions by glibly saying, ‘read the book’. This play needed to come from within me as much as from its source.

Tobi Bamtefa and Joyce Omotola in rehearsals for The Last King of Scotland at Sheffield Theatres (photo by Helen Murray)

So last summer I found myself on a flight to Entebbe. Let’s be clear, I’m under no illusion that a week in a distant nation by a white traveller confers on them any real expertise or authority. Whilst my plays are grounded in research, they are also made out of haphazard experiences, conversations, books and hours of browsing YouTube. Now, armed with a Bradt guidebook, a copy of the novel, numerous inoculations and an intermittent phone signal, I tried to track some of the places and events in the book.

I didn’t make it to the Murchison Falls. I didn’t trek up to see the gorillas in the Rwenzori Mountains, or kayak the headwaters of the Nile. My trip was a relatively tame one, but revealing in other ways. The first shock was the invisibility of Amin’s regime after more than thirty years of Yoweri Museveni’s rule. Yes, there are the torture chambers beneath the Twekobe Palace (these I did visit, with the uncomfortable thrill of being a sensation seeker as I made the descent); yes, there is Paradise Island, where Amin was rumoured to have fed his victims to the waiting crocodiles; or the huge avenue named after his loyal supporter Muammar Gaddafi, leading to the vast Kampala Mosque. But no museums, no reckoning, little visual evidence of what occurred here under Amin.

Tobi Bamtefa in rehearsals for The Last King of Scotland at Sheffield Theatres (photo by Helen Murray)

And when I mentioned to Ugandans that I was working on a play about Amin, there was a distinct sense that I was raking over ancient history. After all, for the youthful population, Amin’s rule preceded their birth by decades. They’re more interested in the current President’s critic, the singer and philanthropist Bobi Wine; or in protesting at a Government tax on social media. The swanky new malls that rise from streets choked with traffic, the impoverished fishermen emptying Lake Victoria of its fish with mosquito nets, the commuters with their legs wrapped round the rider of a boda boda bike – they all have their faces set on a difficult future as citizens of one of the poorest nations in Africa. No wonder the then-imminent visit of Narendra Modi or the unfinished pothole-free highway from Entebbe Airport held more interest to them than the mayhem of Amin’s rule.

Yet for all that, I came home feeling closer to Amin’s tenure. One astonishing outcome of the visit was a read-through of the play on Bulago Island in the great space of Lake Victoria. A company was hastily assembled, with one paper copy of the script, two laptops running out of battery, and various shared phones. The part of Idi was read by the Island’s policeman (like Amin, a member of the Kakwa people); the Ambassador was read by a retired British judge, sidelined by the current Government for exposing its corruption; Idi’s wife Kay was played by a cook who, it quickly became apparent, was barely literate. The waters of the lake lapped against the shore, kingfishers flashed past and golden-orbed spiders hung from the trees. The day passed, we broke for lunch, we continued.

Afterwards, we talked. The policeman, his voice soft and kind, felt Idi Amin was a ‘great man’, misunderstood, badly advised. A lawyer spoke of his fear of Amin as a child, his family’s sufferings. The white ex-pats seemed a little uncomfortable with this discussion, and I felt their loneliness too – it is reflected in the fate of Marina, one of the characters in the play. Then, without warning, the sun fell below the horizon and the equatorial night began.

Where is all that in the play? A line here, a line there. But for me, my brief time in that wonderful country transformed a technical task into a labour of love, closing down the distance between play, novel and the reality behind them both, as vast and intangible as the waters of that great African lake.


The above is an edited version of an article by Steve Waters, first published in the theatre programme for the Sheffield Theatres’ production of The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden, adapted by Steve Waters. The play has its world premiere at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 27 September–19 October 2019. To book tickets, visit the Sheffield Theatres website.

The script of The Last King of Scotland is published by Nick Hern Books. To buy your copy for just £7.99 (rrp £9.99) visit the Nick Hern Books website.

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