Reviews London TheatreReviewsWest End & Central Published 7 March 2016

Review: I See You at Royal Court

Royal Court, Jerwood Upstairs ⋄ 25th February - 26th March 2016

A lack of subtlety disrupts Mongiwekhaya’s play at the Royal Court.

Eleanor Turney
Desmond Dube and Bayo Gbadamosi in I Seee You at Royal Court. Photo: Alastair Muir.

Desmond Dube and Bayo Gbadamosi in I Seee You at Royal Court. Photo: Alastair Muir.

Mongiwekhaya’s knotty play is about seeing and not seeing, speaking and not hearing, language and identity. Unpicking some of the tensions left behind after Apartheid, I See You attempts to present a challenging thriller that shows the importance of knowing where you come from and what you stand for.

Desmond Dube’s brutish and lost Buthelezi is having a bad night. His wife has taken out a restraining order against him and he’s not best pleased, using his boss’s indulgence to use the minutes before the injunction takes effect to scream “You belong to me” into the darkness outside his old home. Charming.

Unfortunately for Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi), who is just out to get laid, he is pulled over, accused of drink driving, and finds himself on the wrong end of Buthelezi’s rage. A few poorly-chosen words, and Ben is hauled away for a night of being smacked around and tormented, as Buthelezi works out his frustrations not only at his wife, but also at the way South Africa has changed – and not changed – after the end of Apartheid.

Ben is studying Law at university, he’s never visited a township, he was educated abroad and he only speaks English – his native Xhosa has all been forgotten. This disregard for language and ancestry incenses Buthelezi, who fought against Apartheid and is disillusioned by what the next generation is making of the new South Africa. Ben, in a borrowed car, being chatted up by a white girl, represents everything Buthelezi resents, and pays the price for it.

It’s an interesting set-up, and one that could make a powerful play. Under Noma Domezweni’s direction, the cast work hard to bring this story alive, and it does have some genuinely tense moments. Watching the police brutalisation of Ben, and the calm way that they rationalise their behaviour, is deeply unpleasant and well-handled.

However, the play itself is heavy-handed and doesn’t manage to really pull you in. The violence is unsettling, for sure, but it’s all rather one-note. Buthelezi’s rage is all-consuming, meaning that we never learn anything else about this man. His partner stands by, dithering, and his boss refuses to engage, preferring to preen for the TV cameras. All we learn of Skinn, the girl who picks Ben up in a club, is that she’s just left an abusive boyfriend. He appears, too, and has even less of a character to work with.

I See You is cleverly written in the way that it switches between languages, effortlessly showing the power that this skill has in a deeply divided country. Even Skinn (Jordan Baker) skips between English and Afrikaans with ease – mocking Ben for his lack of understanding. The play uses its characters’ ability to slip between languages to demonstrate difference and alienation, which is interesting, but could perhaps be subtler.

Unfortunately, Mongiwekhaya doesn’t tread lightly, and the whole play feels didactic and overly expository. None of the characters are well-drawn enough that we can really understand their motivations, despite the best efforts of the cast. Domezweni directs an intense production, but the script never allows this play to punch above its weight.

I See You is on at the Royal Court until 26th March 2016. Click here for tickets.

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Eleanor Turney

Eleanor Turney is a freelance writer and editor. @eleanorturney

Review: I See You at Royal Court Show Info


Produced by International Playwrights: A Genesis Foundation Project

Directed by Noma Dumezweni

Written by Mongiwekhaya

Cast includes Jordan Baker, Desmond Dube, Bayo Gbadamosi, Austin Hardiman, Sibusiso Mamba, Amaka Okafor, Lunga Radebe

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