“It’s been an interesting and complex experience” – Daniel Portman on The Last King of Scotland

Steve Water’s latest play brings corruption and complicity to the Crucible

This fall, the world premiere of electrifying thriller The Last King of Scotland is coming to Sheffield. Adapted from the book by Giles Foden, the story takes place in 1970s Uganda where Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (Game of Throne’s Daniel Portman) becomes entangled in the country’s complicated and often brutal regime. Drawn into the inner workings of Uganda, Garrigan ends up as a personal physician to the dictator Idi Amin. I sat in on the rehearsals to watch how the action would be brought to life on the stage.

The scene I watched, involving a variety of journalists reporting on the new Ugandan leader, was intended to give a sense of space and time to the play. The room was an electric mix of colour, movement and sounds as the movement director Kane Husbands shaped the scene into something coordinated and tangible. It was interesting to see how the cast interacted with one another, particularly with the character of Garrigan, who begins as an outsider unfamiliar with the country’s cultural and political workings. We later caught up with Daniel Portman to talk about the complexities of his character and how the story remains relevant to audiences today.

Peter Hamilton Dyer, John Omole and Daniel Portman in rehearsals. Photo by Helen Murray.

What has the rehearsal process been like so far?
There’s been a lot of textual analysis and dissection of the piece as a group which was a new experience to me. I’ve never done that in a theatre setting before so that was a real learning curve and it’s been great. Through doing that, you build a bit of a team energy and morale as a unit. It’s such an ensemble piece. We started getting on our feet yesterday and it feels like the ground work that we did in the last couple of weeks will really pay off. It’s difficult to know until you get on your feet and you’re doing it. Everyone has lots of thoughts and people are willing to take risks and I’m very excited, so I feel really lucky to be here.

How will the stage adaption be different to the book and film versions?
They all tell the same story but from different perspectives. The book is very much the story of a man documenting a situation, but the film, to me, is a man being swept up in a situation and this version of the character is an opportunist, he chooses to take this path and I think complicity is one of the main themes of the play. There are a lot of questions to be asked and things to think about in the stage adaption: race politics and social politics, geographical situations and the rise of totalitarian dictators in our politics, even in this country with our prime minister… if he could be Idi Amin Dada, Boris Johnson probably would be. And obviously Trump. I think there’s an opportunity in this for the mirror to be held up, especially with the British influence in Uganda and being instrumental in things that happened.

Director Gbolahan Obisesan in rehearsals. Photo by Helen Murray.

How would you describe the relationship between your character, Dr Garrigan, and Idi Amin Dada in the play?
Garrigan begins with a romantic, idealised view of Uganda, and of the leader. Amin comes out and makes a speech and Garrigan sees him almost as a rock star, he idolises him. That’s Garrigan’s introduction to him as a man and I think that has a hand in why he lets him off with so many things. He’s not a hero to him but he has put him on a pedestal. As the play goes on, Nicholas realises he’s been too aware of the idea of Amin rather than the real Amin – a deeply complex, twisted but also quite child-like individual. There are real layers to that relationship. I auditioned with Tobi Bamtefa who plays Amin in a chemistry reading and it just worked straight away.

Is it a different experience playing a character who is complicit in atrocities in comparison to the more easy-going, lovable characters you’ve played before like Podrick (Game of Thrones) or Max (Square Go)?
It’s been an interesting and complex experience to think about his complicity. In the play, everyone exists in this moral grey area where actions speak louder than words. I’ve been trying to figure out Garrigan and I’m not quite there yet. Does he feel like he’s to blame or does he feel like a victim? Is he aware of his complicity entirely? There’s a great deal of conflict in him. For me, certainly, I feel that I want to explore a man who doesn’t know who he is and I think that’s one of the reasons that he goes to Uganda to escape the version of himself that he’s created in Scotland. It’s about how he views himself in the world, his desires and his wellbeing against that of others.

The Company of The Last King of Scotland in rehearsals. Photo by Helen Murray.

I could tell from being in rehearsals that there was a palatable group morale and lots of energy in the room. It seems like even though the play focuses on a dark topic, there will be moments of light and fun in there too.
Absolutely. It has to; I think certainly in terms of Garrigan’s journey, there needs to be something magnetic and irresistible about Uganda before he really gets sucked in to the inner workings of the country. It’s a really interesting plot especially considering that it’s set over eight years and there are quite a few jumps in time and relationship but as you say, there is a group energy, and I feel like these relationships are going to come really easily now. It’s a good cast, there’s no ego in the room and people are committed to it. Everyone’s very excited to be involved, it’s a joyous experience.

The Last King of Scotland is showing at The Crucible Theatre 27 Sep–19 Oct.

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