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A mad world spawning madmen


Written by Antony Sher.

Directed by Nancy Meckler.

Designed by Katrina Lindsay
Lighting by Johanna Town
Music by Ilona Sekacz
Movement by Scarlett Mackmin
Sound by John Leonard.

With Jon Cartwright, Jonathan Duff, Alex Ferns, Paul Herzberg, Peter Landi, Lucian Msamati, Oscar Pearce, Antony Sher, Cleo Sylvestre, Christopher Wells, Marius Weyers and Jennifer Woodburne

At the Almeida Theatre in London until 18 October 2003.

Richard Brent

As the title of actor-cum-novelist Antony Sher’s first play implies, the theme is that staple of modernist literature and undergraduate essays: the eternally argued-over notion of “identity”.

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?” (King Lear, Act 1, Sc IV) asks the programme, and while Sher doesn’t exactly answer this age-old lament, his play certainly provides a case study of one root of the problem. The salient central point is that identity is rooted in a sense of “belonging” to something or somebody, the comfort provided by shared values and experiences when one is faced with the “madness” and cruelty of the wider world. Remove this reality and identity fragments, potentially spiralling out of control and resulting in the schizophrenic state of mind in which Sher’s protagonist finds himself.

Sher is on familiar turf here, both autobiographically and theatrically. In his autobiography Beside Myself, released a few years ago, he writes poignantly, but also with a wry humour, about the disorientating experience of growing up as an artistically inclined, homosexual Jew in no-nonsense Apartheid South Africa.

Moreover, his theatrical CV includes the likes of Shylock, Richard III, Leontes and Macbeth — outsiders all, who sever or have severed the natural ties of loyalty, love or social structure that would ground them in a sense of themselves and prevent them from taking the unnatural actions that eventually prove to be their destruction.

Sher’s timely play asks who is to blame for this state of affairs, and his crystal clear verdict is “tough on the causes of crime”. The anti-hero Tsafendas, played by Sher himself, may be a murderer, summarily dismissed by the authorities as “mad”, but here he is a figure of empathy, and it is the social structure of Apartheid (with its victim also in the form of its “architect”, Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd) that is the villain.

The schizophrenic ambiguity of the villain/victim double act is well pointed. The front cover of the weekly issue of Private Eye reads “Verwoerd: A Nation Mourns”. The picture is of four black South Africans leaping into the air in jubilation, a scene recreated in the play when a gravedigger performs a frenetic, impassioned dance on his grave.

The situation is the assassination in 1966 of South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd at the hands of parliamentary messenger Demetrios Tsafendas. Mozambique-born and of mixed race, Tsafendas is “at sea”, frequently literally. His life is a chaotic string of arrests, applications, psychiatric detainment and deportation.

There is an amusing encounter with one South African official that sees him applying for residency, but every time the official believes he has finished his story and enters his “current” country of residence, the story continues, forcing him to scrub out the entry.

Nancy Meckler’s inventive direction physically renders this confusion with whirling suitcases (like Smous in Sher’s novel Middlepost, his bags seem to carry him), and reams of paperwork become cawing gulls. A single brown desk rises and falls as an unbreachable barrier between Tsafendas and the various officials with whom he gets nowhere.

Tsafendas says that sometimes he can touch the sea and feel “home” touching him back, and the “home” that will provide the stability his vulnerable identity needs is Helen Daniels (portrayed by Cleo Sylvestre), for whom he applies to be reclassified as a “Coloured”. He is moving towards her from the play’s beginning when he invokes a woman he hasn’t yet met. He knows she is there and he is homing in.

The inspiration for the play is a recent biography of Tsafendas, A Mouthful of Glass by the Dutch writer Henk van Woerden, and part of the challenge Sher sets himself is convincingly to fill in the other characters. Notable amongst these are Verwoerd himself and the giant tapeworm with which Tsafendas was diagnosed as a child and which, he claims, goaded him to commit the murder.

Here he meets with mixed success. The tapeworm (an excellent, diabolical Alex Ferns) is an inspired way of dramatising the divided “self” (comparable to Phillip Pullman’s concept of a person’s daemon in his Northern Lights trilogy), and it leaves Sher free to turn in a much subtler, more vulnerable performance than usual.

He emerges from beneath Sher’s blanket in the first scene like a freakish new-born son, and is a comrade in times of hardship as well as representing Tsafendas’s latent anger at not being able to live the life he chooses. When Sher dispels him at the end, the bond is hard and painful to break.

However, if there is a problem here it is one of contextual specifics, and one feels that the culture and way of life under Apartheid may occasionally be in danger of being crudely oversimplified. For example, when we first encounter Verwoerd (a chillingly nonchalant Marius Weyers), he is rehearsing a speech in which he compares himself with Hitler. Hitler’s error, Verwoerd claims, lay in his aggression. He, on the other hand, favours the “deadly calm approach”, repetitively, slowly and quietly (ie insidiously) influencing the opinions of politicians and people alike.

He also insists that where Hitler felt excessive hatred for other peoples, he feels only immense pride in and love of his own. I think we are meant to feel uncertain about the distinction, and I am skeptical as to whether the speech has any grounding in fact.

Later, when Tsafendas is arguing with Helen, by a bench that is for whites only, brandishing his identity card and insisting that he refuses to live in a world where one cannot marry and love freely, the parallel becomes inescapable. Identity card equals gold star and “whites only” could read “Jews forbidden”. Later still, when Tsafendas is in prison beneath the gallows on death row, a pair of heavy, silent, chuckling prison cards urinate in the meagre bowl of food in front of him. He quips that it might improve the taste.

In this way, Sher’s portrayal of racial persecution seems somewhat standardised and suffers for it. He has an exciting and moving true story to tell, but he also has a wider point to make about the root causes behind extreme actions. He seems overly determined to fit the two together, and the result is a little frayed at the edges.

And yet the point remains valid and resonant. We now look to Palestine, suicide bombings, and the inevitable failure of a “roadmap to peace” imposed from afar, one that has no real understanding of the complexities of the issues it seeks to solve. The world is mad, Sher is saying, and cannot be surprised when it spawns madmen.

7 October 2003

boontoe / to the top

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