BWW Reviews: A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT; Interviews With a Political Assassin

There's no death penalty in South Africa, so when the infamous Afrikaner police colonel and hired assassin, kidnapper and torturer known throughout the country as Prime Evil was brought to trial after the fall of apartheid, the verdict resulted in his receiving two life sentences and an additional 212 years in prison.

Noma Dumezweni and Matthew Marsh
(Photo: Richard Termine)

Nicholas Wright's engrossing and superbly acted drama, A Human Being Died That Night, is based on psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela's book chronicling her conversations with inmate Eugene de Kock, spanning from 1997-2002. The play premiered at Cape Town's Fugard Theatre and is making its American debut at BAM.

"What should our attitude be to people who have committed atrocities?," Gobodo-Madikizela asks the audience of her opening presentation. Is forgiveness appropriate, or even possible?

The bulk of the 90-minute play, simply staged by Jonathan Munby, has Gobodo-Madikizela (Noma Dumezweni), sent by President Nelson Mandela's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, conversing across a table with de Kock (Matthew Marsh). Her chair has wheels so she can quickly back off from any sudden movements. His feet are chained to a stool that's bolted to the floor and you can hear the links softly rattle with every movement.

Given the drastic change in their country's politics, the play isn't so much an analysis of a killer's mind as an attempt to understand the mindset of the white minority that had recently lost control to the black majority. De Kock insists that he was a minor cog loyally working for his country while describing the intricacies of bombings and murders of political opponents.

Noma Dumezweni and Matthew Marsh
?(Photo: Richard Termine)

Marsh's performance is soft-spoken with touches of dry humor ("Tell me, does this, this set-up that you're looking at now make you think of a certain film? With Jodie Foster and Sir Anthony Hopkins?"). If not exactly warm, there's a polite and intelligent friendliness about him and the suggestion that he is truly repentant.

Dumezweni's Gobodo-Madikizela appears to be continually fighting to find emotional detachment, not always able to hide her reactions of shock and disgust.

Late in the play we learn that the 212 years have been cut from de Kock's sentence. In real life, the man they called Prime Evil was granted parole this past January, increasing the impact of the play's complex discussion of the appropriateness of forgiveness.

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