My Christmas memory begins in early summer 2004, on day two of rehearsals for Stuff Happens, David Hare’s brilliantly funny, heartbreaking excoriation of what took us to war with Iraq in 2003. I get to play Condoleezza Rice in Nick Hytner’s stunning production; Shostakovich, elegantly pointed chair action and top-of-the-range acting!
Of-the-moment politics, while playing the thrillingly enigmatic “Condi” on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage, with an audience hungry for answers … heaven.
Day two of rehearsals.
Nick asks have I read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials – no.
Have I heard of Serafina Pekkala – no.
Would I like to play Serafina Pekkala in his two-part remount of His Dark Materials that autumn running into the spring, again on at the Olivier?
Even as I say yes – I was never going to say no – my brain batters away: you have booked a two- week Christmas holiday with your husband and children to stay in your father’s newly completed, decades-long-awaited house in Accra.
Their first trip, your first since 1976 – now with the theatre schedule reducing that stay from a fortnight to four days … what are you doing?
Being an actor.
Yes. Thank you, Nick.
My husband heroically takes the children – variously 17, eight and seven – into the unknown, extended-family landscape.
I fly out on Christmas Eve.
I have forgotten the joyous Ghanaian tradition of applauding as the plane lands.
To be surrounded by that enclosed mass of laughter, sharp-witted humour, voices reminiscent of my aunts and uncles, grandparents, cousins, my dad … I cry.
The heat that hits as you descend the stairs into the dark of an Accra evening; the then unrevamped Kotoka international airport reminding me of arriving truculent and secretly thrilled aged 13.
Awaking on Christmas morning in Accra, in the home my father talked of building since he bought the land in 1970, the decades-old architectural plans finally realised.
Walking the red earth road outside the house with my Yeoman of Sussex writer husband, the soil making me cry again; he, sharing discoveries he has made before my arrival, little shops and good conversation.
My little chicks with their cousins, as my brother and I had been with ours.
Sitting beneath the mango tree and the avocado trees and nascent royal palms.
Fresh pawpaw for breakfast, my stepmother diligently overseeing arrangements and guests.
The young glamorous aunts of my childhood, still glamorous on the veranda, swapping tales and laughing outrageously; jollof and kelewele and Club beer.
Standing early morning Boxing Day between my father and uncle in church, bathed in their voices, effortlessly harmonising all the traditional Anglican Christmas hymns, enriched by African tuning.
Returning home sated, abruptly caught by the World Service – a tsunami; other ex-colonies, a different Boxing Day experience.
A tearful farewell two days later, leaving family, leaving the red dust …
The soil calling to my marrow; knowing from now I would return regularly, no more 28-year hiatus.
After our first performances back in the theatre, shaking post-show collection buckets at the exits, actors still in His Dark Materials regalia – huge audience generosity for the victims of the Boxing Day tsunami.
My Christmas four days; and as many of us do in unspeakable moments of loss, there but for the grace …
And momentarily, we are all appalled gratitude.