DEATH , TRUTH, TORMENT : THE REBIRTH OF A NATION
“What” asks the calm academic , “should our attitude be to people who have committed atrocities?”. From Belfast to the Balkans, Syria to South Africa, the problem is perennial. How can you judge and acknowledge torture and murder without corroding your own nature with hatred? How forgive without forgetting or belittling horrors? Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, a South-African born Harvard psychologist who returned to her homeland to work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, warns against too saintly a response. “To fail to judge the perpetrators may feel like kindness. But it is treating them as less than human”.
Her book about an extraordinary series of interviews with the police officer Eugene de Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil” is the basis of this intense and tightly drawn short play by Nicholas Wright. From a brief conference-room opening we are led in silence, as she was, round a cage of black iron bars where de Kock sits, shackled. The light streams from some unseen skylight, the only splash of colour his orange prison uniform. Much of the conversation is verbatim, from Pumla’s tapes and Commission reports.
It is riveting, horrifying, and finally illuminating: Jonathan Munby’s unobtrusive direction holds all the drama within the pair’s words and their telling, expressive body-language. Nomo Dumezweni is tautly professional, betraying inward shakings with tight control; Matthew Marsh as the former covert “counter-insurgency” cop and torturer seems at first unnervingly ordinary, a middle-manager with old-fashioned chivalry towards the woman. He grows in stature, ironically, the more he reveals how and why he did terrible things, including random “pre-emptive” murders of black people suspected of being potential rebels. Terrible things, I should say, which are described just enough to make the point , but not (as lesser authors might) dwelt upon pruriently.
De Kock’s journey is no facile one: he rants against those who, equally guilty, testified against him, and the clean-handed politicians who gave the orders which steeped him in blood. He builds a hideously comprehensible picture of being an Afrikaner cop in the years of white paranoia, fed by ANC militancy and that weird communal denial which is hard to imagine unless you lived there. “White South Africans had to sleep peacefully in bed – they were happy to be protected, and didn’t care how”. This is true: I lived there for two years as a young teenager, and even from those early 1960’s well remember the sense of hysterical dread of black insurrection, mingled with denial of the overarching injustice of apartheid.
But de Kock, like others, did fearful things and got used to them. Under Pumla’s quiet insistence we watch his conscience seeping slowly through the professional reminiscence: faces of the dying swim before him, moments of horror when he is forced to see that the “enemy” are not the crazed Communist monsters he was taught to fear and hate. Marsh’s performance is stunningly real; opposite him Dumezweni too goes through painful changes, forced to cast off her academic determination not to feel. It is as if this 85-minute experience distils and condenses that extraordinary process of South African reconciliation, with all its anger and all its hope. When de Kock ends his final anecdote with a blurted, choking “A human being died that night” you feel, with a shock, that one was born, too.
Box office 020 722 9301 to 21 June http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com