The production sets out its stall pre-show in one of the most straightforward ways I’ve ever seen. As the audience take their seats in what feels like a seminar room, a slide on the back wall reads, ‘The Human Capacity for Evil and the Possibility of Forgiveness’; as a way of summarising the play, it’s both accurate and succinct.
Based on psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book of the same name, about her meetings with the imprisoned Eugene de Kock, a notorious, state-sanctioned mass-murderer, playwright Nicholas Wright has managed to create a piece of theatre that feels grand and intimate all at once. Never shying away from the complexity of the themes that run through Gobodo-Madikizela’s psychological research – good and evil, the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, the human capacity for forgiveness – Wright, at the same time, paints a picture of two very different people which always remains, first and foremost, sympathetic and human.
A neat use of space sees hints of theatricality slowly but steadily seep into what begins as an academic lecture, until the audience is drawn into de Kock’s prison. As you file in to where de Kock sits waiting inside, the sense of being drawn into a monster’s lair is hugely unsettling. Like much of what follows, this opening gambit is chilling in its simplicity.
Nicknamed ‘Prime Evil’ by the press for the extent of his atrocities in Apartheid South Africa, de Kock is not an easy man with whom to sympathise. In a performance full of detail, Matthew Marsh never strays into caricature; his de Kock is at first an upright bull, huffing with over-confidence, but gradually Marsh drip-feeds you little tics, hints of a faded boyhood stammer, until you begin to appreciate how broken the man before you, not a monster but the shadow of a monster. He looks small and uncomfortable, like an accountant stuck inexplicably in a day-glo orange prison uniform, and for all the thought and detail that has clearly gone into this performance, it never feels ‘showy’. You never stop believing in what Marsh is doing – the sign of a truly well-judged performance, and great directorial control from Jonathan Munby.
Noma Dumezweni’s performance is still and considered in comparison– almost impossibly so. You feel the weight of her concentration bearing down on Marsh. It’s an intelligent, quietly graceful performance, and Dumezweni and Marsh are perfectly in sync throughout. For much of the play, it’s de Kock who speaks, his life that is being unpacked, as we join Gobodo-Madikizela in watching him stretched out on the psychiatrist’s couch – but when the moment comes to get a glimpse, finally, of Pumla’s inner life, Marsh seems to draw back to give Dumezweni room to occupy the stage. There can’t be many pairs of performances in London right now which are as complementary as these.
Munby keeps the pace fast and proceedings interesting to watch, in spite of the fact that you are essentially looking at two people sitting and talking for over an hour, one of them literally chained to his seat. It’s a tense, pared-back piece of drama, and although it sometimes demands of its audience a more in-depth knowledge of South African history (I got lost in the stream of abbreviations once or twice; TRC, ANC), the themes are universal. Wright has written an unapologetically intellectual play, which muses on the concerns of Gobodo-Madikizela’s work, but is never intellectual at the expense of emotion.