A Human Being Died That Night: Hampstead Theatre downstairs

Saturday 15th June 2013, matinée

It’s becoming more frequent to receive emails from the theatre in advance of a play we have booked, telling us how to get there and warning us not to be late, reminding us of the various food options, and occasionally providing some useful information.  In the case of ‘A Human Being Died That Night’ at the Hampstead Theatre, we were informed that we might have to stand for part of the play.  Thinking no more about it, we arrived in the foyer to find most of the audience seated, and spent about ten minutes standing at the back watching people’s disappointed faces as they were told by the usher they would have to stand.  Then we realised that we were meant to be at a conference watching Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela accepting a prize for her work as a psychologist, work which focuses particularly on questions of the human capacity for evil and the possibility of understanding and forgiveness.  This sets the context for the rest of the play, which is a two-hander between her character and Eugene De Kock, whose part in the Apartheid regime in South Africa made him notorious and earned him the title ‘Prime Evil’.  After a brief introduction we finally got to file into the theatre itself, past the back of the stage, which consisted entirely of a caged cell.  Although the prologue is a nice idea, it doesn’t really work as there is not enough information to add anything to the drama, and it provides a fragmented beginning to an otherwise tight and well-structured play.  Perhaps an exhibition would have worked better, allowing audiences to choose whether to learn about the context before or after the play, or at all.

Having said all this, it is to the credit of Nicholas Wright’s play that the introduction is not needed, and the distraction is soon forgotten.  An adaptation of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book, the play recreates the interviews she undertook with Eugene De Kock, in an attempt to understand how a fundamentally moral man could become a mass murderer.  She asks to visit him in prison driven by curiosity, not by the desire to forge any kind of relationship, and soon finds that this it not as easy as it sounds.  Yet she must shield herself from her own emotions in order to do her work effectively.  On the other hand De Kock, hoping for any contact which might help his cause to be released from prison, also finds himself digging deeper into his emotions than he expected.

As the play opens, De Kock makes a half-joking reference to the film ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, pointing to the style of his cell, garish prison uniform, and leg shackles.  It’s a clever opening, as it verbalises what many in the audience must be thinking, and simultaneously signals that this battle of wills will be very different.  Although horrific events are recounted, this play is unsensational, and a genuine attempt to show a multitude of perspectives, asking difficult questions about the nature of evil, justice and forgiveness.  In her introduction, Gobodo-Madikizela talks of the fear of humanising the enemy, and this is exactly what the play does as it reveals the machinery of the regime that created De Kock and many others.  The title refers to De Kock’s emotional connection with one killing that he perpetrated, and his acknowledgement of the victim’s humanity.  It also mirrors the way in which he begins to regain his own humanity during the play.

The presence of Matthew Marsh in the cast was a significant factor in going to see the play, which might otherwise have put us off with its forbidding subject matter.  Hot on the heels of Proof, where he played a mathematical genius grappling with madness, here he has another part for which he is ideally cast.  Marsh excels at creating morally ambiguous and complex characters, and here he conveys extreme emotions in a character who is in a constant struggle to contain them and appear rational.  The bizarre moments of trivial etiquette, insisting on paying for the coffee from the prison trolley, trying very hard not to swear in front of a lady, and finally worrying that Pumla had some personal reason to meet him because he might have killed a member of her family, are all played with perfect balance, and we willingly go on the journey that is so taboo – trying to understand someone who has been labelled ‘evil’ and who barely understands himself.  We are never allowed to forget that this is a person who killed and planned murders and even laughed about them, and Marsh, in a subtle yet powerful portrayal, allows us to hold on to that contradiction which is so crucial to the message of the play.

We recognised the name of Noma Dumezweni from Little Eagles, a play about the Russian space programme in which she played a fictional Doctor, and in which we sensed that she didn’t quite get the opportunity to take wing.  Here she really has something to get her teeth into and her performance does justice to the person and the writer whose book inspired the play.  She has a strong presence throughout and conveys the focussed intelligence, coldness and persistence of someone who will keep pushing to find out what she wants, undaunted by the enormity of the questions she is asking.  Yet as the play goes on, Dumezweni gently reveals her insecurities and vulnerabilities as she keeps searching for a way in, and yet we can always see the depth of her conviction as she becomes more certain that understanding and forgiveness have to be the way forward, even if by the end she cannot be absolutely sure that she would have been able to forgive if she had been in the victim’s shoes.  The fact that she is not afraid to say so shows that there are no simple answers here.

The actors are aided by Jonathan Munby’s skilful direction and Tim Mitchell’s simple but effective lighting.  It is not often that a play can provoke so much thought, and bring out so much complexity in the space of one act.  The final line, in which De Kock says ‘there is still so much that we don’t know about each other’, says it all.  If this were ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ it would be the set-up for a sequel.  Here, it is a simple statement of fact, and a reminder that in real life, everyone struggles to understand what drives human beings to commit atrocities, including the perpetrators.

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