Magazine article The Spectator

On Love and Death

Magazine article The Spectator

On Love and Death

Article excerpt


On love and death Hammerklavier Jermyn Street Theatre ID Almeida The Illustrious Corpse Soho Theatre

Here's a prediction. Yasmina Reza's Hammerklavier isn't going to break any box-office records. The author of Art has written a tender, lyrical novel about love, grief, ageing and memory. This is a slight but highly memorable adaptation. Susie Lindeman, an actress so petite that she might have been born through a gap in the floorboards, has just the right mixture of frailty and passion for the role.

Antony Sher's first play, ID, is stronger on spectacle than on psychology. It concerns the death of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, who was murdered in 1966 by a racially confused drifter, Demetrios Tsafendas. The story is almost incredible. Tsafendas was born in South Africa of a Cretan businessman and a black housemaid. For some reason he was classified as white. He was brought up in Mozambique, Egypt and Greece, and after spells in Europe he returned to South Africa and fell in love with a black gospel-singer. To make his overtures more acceptable to her, he applied to be reassigned as 'coloured'. The romance failed and Tsafendas took a job as a porter in the South African Parliament. One morning he armed himself with two knives and stuck one of them into Verwoerd's chest. He later claimed to have been acting on instructions from a tapeworm in his stomach.

From these weird materials, Sher builds his drama. Much of it succeeds. He plays Tsafendas as an amiably bumbling simpleton. To make the tapeworm into a character is a bold and effective step. To double him as the narrator seems hazardous but works well. What lets the production down is the decision to dress him as a sort of gay clubber from about 1985 and to sprinkle his part with naughty swear-words.

Verwoerd is the most compelling character. In dictatorship drama, as Schindler's List made clear, the oppressors are more interesting than the oppressed. They have freedom of action and a sense of responsibility to their consciences. Verwoerd's wicked soundbite embraces both the nature of the problem and his despicable solution. 'Don't educate the native and you have a savage. Educate him and you have a headache. Half-educate him and you have a servant.'

Inevitably a play about apartheid will lack any ideological surprises, and as I trooped into the Almeida with my fellow Islington liberals my mind was made up in advance. …

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