Getting inside the force of nature that was Amin

First the book, then the film and then a stage production. With The Last King of Scotland, opening at the this week, Sheffield Theatres is following the successful pattern set by The Life of Pi of adapting a novel which became a hit film.

Wednesday, 25th September 2019, 10:51 am
Updated Saturday, 28th September 2019, 07:57 am
Tobi Bamtefa as Idi Amin in rehearsals for The Last King of Scotland at the Crucible, Sheffield

When Scottish medic Nicholas Garrigan becomes personal physician to Idi Amin, the self-declared President of Uganda, he is thrust into the dictator’s inner circle.

Steve Waters’ adaptation strips Giles Foden’s novel back to its core to explore the notion of corruption and complicity.

The notorious Amin era in Uganda was in the Seventies so most of those involved in the production are too young to remember when he hit the world’s headlines.

THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND ; Tobi Bamtefa and Joyce Omotola in rehearsal

So what did Tobi Bamfeta know beforehand about the man he is playing? “I had heard some stories about him because I have some Ugandan family,” he says.

“We are Nigerian and my uncle married a Ugandan and we went to the wedding in Kampala and heard people talking about him. But that was about 10 years ago when I had no idea I would be doing this.

“When I got this role I went to speak to my aunt again. She gave me a bit of context but she was also quite young during that time. She said he was a force of nature to an extent. I can understand that, because of my size I tend to get noticed a lot it’s very hard for me to hide. Everywhere he goes people notice him and also he is quite ebullient so there is also that to contend with.

“I think the feeling now is mixed. There are some people who say he did things which they appreciated such as nationalising things. Because of him Uganda has its own beer.”

Tobi Bamtefa

But his legacy is one of repression, persecution and violence. it is estimated that between 100,000 and 500,000 people were killed under his regime.

“What was interesting in my research was you don’t hear much about him taking part in any violent activity. It’s more the things that he sanctioned,” points out Bamtefa. “But he’s not the kind of person who would shy away from that stuff - he has done it. He was very capable. And one of the things I was keen to do was to give off that essence You know, this is a very dangerous fellow.

“At the same time he is very charming and very likeable. And for someone who didn’t have much of an education he was a very astute person, very intelligent. But he knew very well how to play the fool.”

Earlier this year the actor appeared at the Crucible on tour with The Barbershop Chronicles.

“I played a Ghanaian, a Cameroonian and a Ugandan so I had a bit of a head start in that sense,” he reports. “Coming to terms with the accent wasn’t too difficult. I did study the tapes but I can’t replicate his voice. I think it is dangerous if you attempt to copy another human being.

“The whole point of this rehearsal process if for me to find things to help me embody his essence. His physicality, his manner of speech, his cadence and his hand gestures, believe it or not, little things like that allow me to bring that essence to life.”

Although both Bamfeta’s parents are actors (father Kunle is famous in Nigeria from both movies and TV, mother Moji is in an award-winning sitcom in the UK about a Nigerian family living in Peckham) his career path has been unusual.

He obtained a law degree in the UK where he has lived since he was 10, then did national service in Nigeria before deciding he wanted to act and returning to London.

“I just loved acting and a lot of it was self-learning and then hustling to find opportunities,” he says. He performed my own poetry all round London and hung around with other people who were writing or making films or what not. That was how I got into it.”

The Last King of Scotland opens at the Crucible Theatre on Friday, September 27, and continues to October 19.