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Theatre: Mugabe and The Responsibilities of Power  

 

By Shaun Hutchinson

 

If you attend award-winning writer Fraser Grace’s fifth play expecting a condemnatory polemic against Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe, and more demonizing of this thorn in the side of Tony Blair, you may emerge disappointed.

 

That’s because this performance - which dramatises the run up to the 2002 Zimbabwe presidential election when the veteran leader apparently believed he was being persecuted by an ‘ngozi’- the malevolent spirit of deceased comrade Josiah Tongogara - is more than a hatchet job on Mugabe.

 

In fact Joseph Mydell's eerily persuasive performance humanises the caricature we’ve all become accustomed to. 

 

Anthony Sher’s well received and powerful directorial debut - explores the volatile relationship between a weary, suspicious Robert Mugabe (Joseph Mydell) and his psychiatrist (David Rentoul). 

 

The doctor - patient relationship is the pivot for an analysis of human relationships – between Mugabe and his wife Grace (Noma Dumezweni) and Gabriel (Christopher Obi) a youthful, menacing and corruptible Central Intelligence Organisation body guard.

 

The 90 minute piece is divided smoothly into several scenes, without intermission; but this enhanced the sense of urgency and anticipation. 

 

In the intimate of London's Soho Theatre - the audience got up close and personal - the stark, minimalist white set was dominated by an ornate 15 foot high sliding gate which cocooned the characters from life outside this presidential compound. Zimbabwean musician Chartwell Dutiro’s music - drums and mbira (finger piano) - were also used to good effect as was the soundtrack of a tropical evening.  

 

Although the story unpicks the patient - doctor relationship, the tension between the public and personal persona of political leaders is a crucial theme as well. 

 

These conflicts - each character has secrets and weaknesses - explode into violence in a well choreographed and brutal fight scene between the lurking, malleable and violent Gabriel and  the rather naive Dr Petric.

 

The verbal bouts between Mugabe and his personal psychiatrist are the essence of this piece though and evolve from initial unease and stifled exchanges to piercing arguments on contending views - often volatile, at times calm, always with underlying tension.

 

Colonialism, racism, loyalty, principles and political power are depicted persuasively and credibly. 

 

The play’s premise, that the persecuted inevitably transform into persecutors, or that a public persona often obscures hidden mental health or psychological problems, is a theme usually present in portrayals of African leaders and this one is no exception.

 

Nevertheless the fact that opponents of racism and colonialism are usually quite rational is captured perfectly by Mydell’s systematic and logical Mugabe.

 

Regrettably though the ability to write without stereotype was lost in respect of Grace – Mugabe’s wife. Olivier award-winning actress, Noma Dumezweni’s strong performance - as a manipulating, sexually alluring, glamorous Imelda Marcos figure - is constrained by a crude cardboard cut out portrayal a powerful woman.

 

David Rentoul’s Dr Peric is at once intense, committed, frustrated and secretive, with a foot in two camps - a white man born to second generation colonialists, who participated clandestinely in the Second Chimurenga – the Liberation War for independence - with a Black wife and a farm expropriated by War Veterans. 

 

The dramatic device of using a psychiatrist to denude a patient of power and authority (who wouldn’t be in such an intimate arena) is useful - but in fact the verbal combat is won hands down by Mugabe who makes mincemeat out of his adversary - intellectually, ideologically, politically and even morally.

 

This is seen to best effect in the powerful and rousing political rally scene. With the chants of “comrade leader” in the background, Mydell’s Mugabe – spotlighted at a lectern on a darkened set - combines a searing rejection of the colonial style interference of Tony Blair’s government with a passionate defence of his country’s right to independence.

 

Playwright: Fraser Grace

Director: Anthony Sher

Production: Royal Shakespeare Company

 

Breakfast With Mugabe runs until 22 April at Soho Theatre ,21 Dean Street,  London

 

Hutchinson is a theatre and literary critic

 

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