BWW Reviews: Provocative A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT a Rare, Perfect Theatrical Experience

There is nothing like it when all aspects of a play and its production come together seamlessly. Based on the book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, Nicholas Wright's A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT, under the direction of Jonathan Munby, offers a rare, perfect theatrical experience. Following "underground" workshop run at The Hampstead Downstairs in London last year, the play opened at the Fugard Theatre earlier this week, after which it will transfer to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg prior to a formal London season at the Hampstead Theatre in May 2014.

A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT brings to life the documentation of a series of interviews between Gobodo-Madikizela and Eugene de Kock, a man who has become known by the moniker "Prime Evil". During the apartheid era, de Kock was the leader of one of the primary counter-insurgency units in the South African Police and played a key role in the kidnapping, torture and murder of activists who opposed the South African government of the time. After apartheid, de Kock was sentenced to two life sentences and 212 years in prison for his political crimes.

Gobodo-Madikizela's interviews transformed this dark figure into a real person, placing his violent transgressions into a context without excusing them. Wright's play builds on that foundation and the result is an unnerving and chilling exploration of de Kock's personal history, of what shaped him and made him capable of such terrible things, of the way he sees himself and what he has done and of his attempts at reconciliation. Also unsettling is the transformative journey upon which Gobodo-Madikizela embarked when conducting her interviews - at first, like the audience, an outsider, who is drawn slowly into the mind of an extraordinarily complex and contradictory man.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about Wright's play is how his incredible specificity in constructing Pumla and Eugene, two characters distinct from their real-life counterparts, points towards universal observations about human nature. Late in the play, Eugene calls himself 'a veteran of lost ideologies'. Becoming such a veteran in the face of the possibly unreliable conclusions of the Truth and Reconciliation and the challenges faced by South Africa since 1994 is one of the conflicts that drives Pumla. Against the backdrop of our own contemporary traumas and a South Africa characterised by the traumas of aftermath, corruption, paralytic apathy and a loss of hope among them, it is a challenge we all have to face today.

Under Munby's sure hand, the play springs vividly to life on stage. The scenes alternate fluidly between a lecture given by Pumla and flashbacks of her various visits with Eugene that illuminate the thesis of her talk. His manipulation of the rhythms of the play is flawless. The 80-minute running time goes by so quickly and the experience is so immersive that emerging from the theatre into the real world feels almost like a transgression in itself. Munby's work is that of a consummate artist.

The performances are electric. Noma Dumezweni delivers a subtle portrayal of Pumla, dignified and controlled at first and then peeling back those masks to reveal the character's vulnerability and angst as she wrestles with Eugene's motives and revelations. As Eugene himself, Matthew Marsh is phenomenal. He captures the terrifying composure of the character, making the moments when he really plunges into Eugene's psyche all the more telling. Most frightening of all is how rational and normal he appears, sitting there in his orange jumpsuit and clinking his chained feet against the table and stool upon which he is compelled to sit during the interviews. Gantane Kusch offers solid support as a prison guard who punctuates the scenes with his intrusions into the world they explore together.

The design of the play is impeccably integrated with the storytelling. The striking set by Paul Wills, Jackie Orton's spot-on costumes, Daniel Galloway's evocative lighting and James Webb's haunting sound design: each represents an invaluable contribution to A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT.

Provocative, intelligent and cathartic, A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT is the kind of play that every South African should see. It is not only a play that delves deeply into the atrocities of our past, in a way that cuts through the endless and numbing political rhetoric that desensitises our view of the past. It is also a play that forces us to turn the spotlight on ourselves and upon the atrocities we inflict upon our fledgling democracy through our complacency, our entitlement and our unwillingness to engage with the processes of reconciliation and transformation.

The South African World Premiere Season of A HUMAN BEING DIED THAT NIGHT runs at the Fugard Studio Theatre in Cape Town until 15 March 2014 and at the Barney Simon Theatre at The Market Theatre in Johannesburg from 19 March - 6 April 2014. Bookings are through Computicket. The production is not suitable for children younger than 14 years old.

Photo credit: Robert Day (UK) / Jesse Kramer (SA)

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From This Author David Fick