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Theatre Reviews

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follow this link to an interview with Polly Findlay


Hampstead Downstairs
Rating: *****

It begins in the foyer. We are assembled for a lecture. We are to hear South African psychologist, and member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, speak about the possibility of forgiveness for crimes against humanity under the apartheid regime. The subject of her talk is the notorious Eugene de Kock, a former police commander and counter-insurgent murderer and torturer known as ‘Prime Evil’.

She describes going to visit him in jail in Pretoria, where he is serving two life sentences plus another 212 years. We move with her into the viewing room outside his cell. He is waiting for us there, his legs in chains and dressed in the latest bright orange prison garb. For the next 75 minutes we are eye-witnesses as Pumla, played with forthright charm, dignity and courage by Noma Dumezweni, prompts de Kock with questions, trying to discover the personality behind the state-licensed ‘monster’.

It is not an easy 75 minutes. We see this chained bull of a man reciting his grievances, rehearsing his speeches to the Commission, and displaying the raw emotion of a nerveless killer who finally cracked under the strain of looking his victims in the eye as they died. Matthew Marsh gives a huge rollercoaster of a performance as de Kock, and has the audience mesmerised by his every punishingly authentic word and gesture.

He jokes about his being in a cell with Pumla as reminiscent of the film “The Silence of the Lambs” and sees himself portrayed as another Hannibal Lecter. He is so incensed by the easy caricature created by the press that he is determined to explain himself, perhaps to expiate his wrongdoing, and even, finally, to seek forgiveness and release from prison.

But can such atrocities ever be forgiven? Can we ever truly understand such people, or see them as fellow human beings deserving of our empathy? Pumla is persuasive in this regard, but the only real conclusions drawn by the play are that the difference between good and evil “is only paper thin” and how little people can truly know of each other. Perhaps these are the only conclusions that can be drawn.

Nicholas Wright, who confesses in the programme notes, to “always being on the lookout for books about his country’s past”, has fashioned something timeless from the original book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela. Anything on the theme of apartheid has inherent drama of a high-octane variety, and in Wright’s hands, and those of his director Jonathan Munby, it is given a concise, succinct and gripping examination. A five-star piece of theatre.

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs
Rating: ****

All plays are personal, but some more so than others. The Art of Dying is a meditation on the way people die, the ways in which we try to protect those we love from their own deaths, and the ways in which we cope with death when it hits us in the face.

It is all the more personal in this instance in that it appears, in part, to be about the dying of the playwright’s own father. That the playwright, Nick Payne, not previously known as a performer, chooses to speak the text himself is testament to its veracity.

This is interwoven with the dying of two others – one, the wife of the American theoretical physicist, Richard P Feynman, and therefore also to be taken as fact, and the other a (presumably) fictional character called Maggie Noonan of Milton Keynes.

Nick Payne comes on stage with a pint of water, which he sips at intervals, punctuating the strands of his narrative. He sits on a centrally placed chair and doesn’t move from it for the duration of the play. He is unassuming, softly-spoken and has a slightly geeky habit of pushing his spectacles back into position with one finger. Everything about him says “I am not an actor” and this is both a strength and a weakness: a strength in that his directness of approach and plain delivery give his subject a heartrending simplicity; and a weakness in that he never changes gear, or structures his performance as a more seasoned actor would.

But this is not a play for actorish tricks and the unvarnished approach pays dividends. The fact that we are constantly aware that we are watching a writer speaking his own words creates its own compelling momentum. Not many playwrights perform their own monologues – David Hare in Via Dolorosa is an obvious recent example - and it’s a bold choice to make (not just because it saves on a casting director). This is the most effective, deliberately low-key performance I have seen in a long while. And Michael Longhurst’s direction matches it perfectly.

Particularly memorable is Payne’s own anecdote about the Lennon song ‘Imagine’, which, because his father played it over and over on a keyboard up in their loft, the young Nick assumed was his father’s own composition. He was then “livid” when some “hippie with long hair and pebble glasses” commandeered it on TV. It is these touches which keep the narrative alive and painfully real.

Payne is also astute enough not to chance his arm too far – he keeps the whole play to a very trim 45 minutes. He barely gets through a third of his pint of water.

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