Thurs 10th July - Sat 12th July & Tues 15th July - Sat 19th July 1997
Directed by Jacquie Penrose
In 1919 a British Officer ordered his men - in the name of order and security - to open fire on an unarmed Indian crowd, killing 379 and wounding over 1,000 more. Could this decent and honourable man, this perfect British hero, ever have slept soundly after such an event?
In a year that sees the return of Hong Kong and which marks the 50th Anniversary of Indian Independence, 'Dreams of a Hero' vividly and movingly evokes the General's haunted struggle to come to terms with this dark episode in British history.
This play is based on a real life incident which happened in Amritsar, India in 1919. At the time, The British authorities had granted themselves emergency powers under the Rowlett Act. In such circumstances gatherings of more than four people were considered to be a threat to security. So when General Reginald Dyer commanded his troops to open fire on a group of protesters, he genuinely believed he was doing the right thing. When it was discovered however, that his orders had resulted in the deaths of 379 Indians and the wounding of another 1200, he was invited to "retire" by his superior officers. To his death he still believed he had been harshly treated.
As the play opens, Penrose imagines how, ill and close to death, Dyer is haunted by his past and in particular the day when he ordered his men to open fire on the unarmed Indian crowd. His dreams are peopled by characters from those events played by masked actors. Dreams of a Hero attempts to address the murkier side of Empire and the casual racism which is still part of society today.
This play was staged at Havant Arts Centre, East Street Havant - Bench Theatre's home since 1977.
|General Reginald Dyer||Peter Corrigan|
|Anne Dyer, his wife||Sally Hartley|
|Doctor Morris||Peter Woodward|
|Witnesses||Louise Arnold |
|Stage Manager||Gemma Harding|
|Assistant Stage Manager||Helen Digard|
|Masks||Susan Grange Bennett|
|Handbill Design||Pete Woodward|
|Set Construction||Andrew Caple|
|Front of House||Damon Wakelin|
|Programme Editor||Andrew Caple|
|Publicity||Helena Whalley |
|Production Photographs||John Plimmer|
When this play was written nearly ten years ago, it seemed an odd time to be writing about British Imperialism - surely that was all old hat - we knew all about Empire and the bad old days. But this was never a play about history so much as about racism. The racism that made the events of 1919 inevitable was deeply ingrained in the British outlook - it was the essence of our imperial confidence, our effortless moral superiority. It still is. It has softened and mellowed, and its language has changed - even the most hard-boiled right-winger would flinch at the use of the word "nigger" (in public anyway). But it is there in our nervousness about immigration, our suspicion of Europe, the xenophobic baying of The Sun and the chants of the football hooligans. The British are hardly alone in this weakness, but it would be foolish to pretend that we can draw a neat line under our imperial past and declare the chapter closed. Historical events resonate through many generations.
Now that the flags are coming down and the Empire has shrunk to a few rocks, this seems an appropriate moment for a certain nostalgia. The dream was gorgeous and compelling: straight-backed Englishmen (and women) striding across the globe, taking with them honour, justice and a sense of fair play. As a 'foreign' child I was sent to a traditional English school, where history was taught as if it were in the 1860s rather than the 1960s. I loved it. Then I discovered that the dream has a darker side, that justice and fair play were highly conditional. So this play was born out of a mixture of nostalgia for the glory days that never quite were and a certain horror that the price paid for the dream by those not quite white enough to be part of it had been so high. The many dead of the Jallainwallah Bagh and Tiananmen Square have a great deal in common.
Havant writer Jacquie Penrose's play has acquired a fierce topicality thanks to current events. This year's 50th anniversary of Indian independence and the handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese lend an added resonance to her reflection on British Empire. Penrose focuses on the Amritsar massacre in India in 1919 in which British troops fired on a crowd, killing 379 and wounding 1200. Centre stage is General Reginald Dyer, who ordered his men to open fire.
Rather than chronicle the debate and court case that followed, she opts for a more dramatic framework - as Dyer lies on his sickbed he is 'visited' by Greek chorus-like witnesses who subject him to a cross-examination.
This premiere for Bench Theatre company, directed by Penrose, is played for 90 minutes without an interval and proves compelling as Peter Corrigan's superbly played bedridden military man faces up to his actions.
The News, 11th July 1997