Delighting in exploring its profound themes, the Bacchanals bring the New Zealand premiere of South African-born, England-based actor and writer Antony Sher’s I.D. to Bats.
The play is inspired by Henk van Woerden’s A Mouthful of Glass, about parliamentary messenger Demetrios Tsafendas who assassinated the father of apartheid, Henrik Verwoerd, in 1966. On meeting Tsafendas three decades later in a Krugersdorp psychiatric hospital, van Woerden found him to be “a charming chatterbox” given to singing old songs.
He also learned of the “very big mistake” Tsafendas’s mulatto mother had made when she flushed away the tapeworm her boy had passed instead of letting him take the stool to the chemist to ensure its head was there. Tsafendas believed the indestructible tapeworm remained inside him.
In Sher’s alternately verbal and theatrically physical dramatisation, “Lintwurm, a parasite” is a devilish alter-ego (redolent of Mosca in Ben Jonson’s Volpone). Tsafendas, a drifter whose father was from Crete, sees himself as an Odysseus returning at last to his Penelope. But because his “girl” Helen Daniels, is coloured he applies to change his I.D. card designation from white to coloured so he can marry her.
It is while he is waiting for the paper work to go through that Tsafendas gets his mind-numbing job as a parliamentary messenger. “Assassination,” Lintwurm has hissed. “Ass-a-sin-nation. Who is the ass, who does the sin, and what about the nation?”
Lesser ensembles could become lost in Sher’s potent blend of monologues, duologues, word-plays, historical facts, metaphysical concepts, classical allusions and theatrical styles but director David Lawrence and the fully focused Bacchanals meet the challenge with alacrity.
Malcolm Murray is simply superb as the dissolute yet charming Tsafendas, possessed yet clearly sane. Alex Grieg delights in the Lintwurm role, Benjamin Fransham is coldly repulsive as the all-too-reasonable Verwoerd and Miria George makes Helen Daniels, and her situation, painfully real. In a range of roles Erin Banks, Tony Hopkins, Hadleigh Walker, James Steward and Salesi Le’ota complete the ensemble, juggle the styles and keep to story moving with flair and fluency.
A previous assassination attempt, by a wealthy farmer named Pratt (Le’ota), also raises the sanity question. Sher makes it clear political interference has both Pratt and Tsafendas declared insane to suppress public discussion of their motives. He also depicts Verwoerd, with his domesticated and ultra-loyal wife Betsie (Banks), as equal yet opposite to the demonstrably manic Hitler then gilds the lily by having Verwoerd’s ghost return to rant like a madman. Great for the actor; unnecessary for the audience.
Having set up so many story strands and theatrical devices to tell the tale, Sher ties it all up with multiple endings. That this director and cast made them all work as well as everything that has gone before is a testament to their collective skill. And in the end it’s worth it to arrive at the point where, after 23 years under a relentlessly blazing cell light, Tsafendas is asked by his now liberated black African nurse (Hopkins) what he most wants. “Darkness,” he says.
A hugely committed production that sends a resounding challenge to all the better-resourced professional companies, this I.D. deserves a longer season and larger audiences.
– John Smythe
The production of the year so far in Wellington is written by a gay Jewish South African actor living in the UK, and performed by a small hard-working cast of Bacchanals with a tiny budget but huge energy and talent.
It’s a remarkable production of an extraordinary story – that of the man dubbed the ‘Architect of Apartheid’ Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, and Demetrios Tsafendas, the lost soul who in 1966 stabbed him to death with a kitchen knife – driven partly by madness and partly by Demetrios’s outrage at the injustices he saw in this new segregated society.
This is a complex play, telling not only the story of these two men who changed history but of white South Africa as it embraced apartheid and the devastating impact on those of colour. Tsafendas – a Mozambiquan-Portugese-Greek – was classified as white but who yearned to be reclassified as coloured, something unheard of, all for the imagined love of a woman. He had spent 25 years travelling the world and the high seas, deported from country to country, homeless and increasingly haunted by the thought of a giant tapeworm infesting his body and his mind. Against the odds he gets a job that gives him access to the Prime Minister whose racist policies were destroying his dreams and his adopted country.
The two lead actors gave faultless performances in hugely demanding roles. Malcolm Murray captured the charming and desperate craziness of Tsafendas, making sure our laughter was tinged with concern for this man who just wanted what we all want – a home and to be loved. Benjamin Fransham transformed himself from a young actor to a middle aged grey haired, purposeful, cunning politician whose deadly calm persona and carefully thought out turns of phrase made him intensely chilling – and effective. Erin Banks is totally convincing as Betsie Verwoerd, the devoted wife of a meglomaniac, while Salesi Le’ota impresses as the hapless Pratt, the white who tried to assassinate the Prime Minister several years before Tsafendas and who was tormented by his failure. Nine actors play several dozen roles between them, some with a better grip on the tricky South African accent than others, but all working brilliantly as a team, armed only with suitcases and chairs.
David Lawrence’s intelligent direction moves the action somehow seamlessly from naturalistic to surrealist to grotesque. There are moments that are genuinely frightening and disturbing and the play itself will leave you feeling unsettled, but see it you must.
– Lynn Freeman
Over the past five and a half years, the Bacchanals have forged a reputation as, above all else, a consistently entertaining company. They’ve tackled Shakespeare, Marlowe, Euripides and Sarah Kane, and always manage to pull off modest, innovative, crowd-pleasing productions. The comedies have depth, the tragedies are funny, and the frocks are seldom charming. Recent tours of the North Island have opened the company up to the provinces, an audience that few young, Wellington-based collectives would be comfortable seeking out, but the Bacchanals always seem like the Bacchanals on an opening night at Bats.
Their latest production presents perhaps their biggest challenge since the inspired lunacy of 2001’s ‘Trilogy’ (The Jew of Malta, Titus Andronicus and Volpone all in a row), or at least since they decided to squeeze an entire Shakespearean show into two cars and a trailer for the first time a couple of years ago. I.D. is a play by the South African born actor Antony Sher, perhaps more renowned for his excellent theatre journal Year of the King than for any individual role he’s played on stage or screen. He’s sort of a theatre equivalent to Richard E. Grant, a native of Swaziland. Both actors have an endearing fish out of water quality about them; despite their huge talents, they both seem constantly worried about being told they’re wearing the wrong sports jacket and could they please leave The Club. Grant set his thoughts about the film world down in his wide-eyed memoir With Nails, and both men have tried their hand at the novel. But, where Grant has eked out a career playing villainous blades in Hollywood stories like The Player and Hudson Hawk, Sher has taken on Macbeth, Richard III, Iago, Shylock and Tartuffe for the RSC, picking up a knighthood for his troubles along the way.
I.D. is the story of Demetrios Tsafendas who (aside from freaking out Microsoft Word 40 years later), assassinated the South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd while working as a parliamentary messenger. When questioned after the fact, he said that part of the blame lay with an Iago-like tapeworm that he was sure had been growing inside him since he was a teenager. When you take into account that Verwoerd was referred to as ‘the architect of apartheid’ and that this was the second attempt on the man’s life, you get the idea that this is a story just waiting to be put up on stage. Throw in an unrequited love story and some comedy and you’ve got yourself a hit.
Malcolm Murray plays Tsafendas, a character Sher wants to present as morally ambiguous but who frequently comes across a tad underwritten. Murray must have struggled in finding a way in to the assassin, but he has tapped into his restless nature and constant feeling of displacement to create a character who is fascinating, in his groundlessness. In the first half of the play he acts almost as a floating signifier of some quaking South African consciousness – white and black – that erupts in the eventual murder. He is joined by Alex Greig as Lintwurm, the tapeworm that has stuck around to torment him through his life. (The age difference between the two actors works very well – after all, Lintwurm would be younger, relative to Tsafendas.) The two figures are utterly dependent on each other, like director and actor, and neither feels complete on his own. Murray’s bumbling Odysseus believes himself to be spurred on by the forces of good, and Greg’s Lintwurm craves a soapbox for his wicked etymological dissertation. Unable to escape, and both bound by the conditions placed on them by the other, Tsafendas’ journey around the world and toward crime becomes a wierd Abbott and Costello adventure. Murray elicits enough sympathy to make you wish the parasite would leave him alone, but you’re secretly glad whenever Greig and his shiny pants strut back to centre stage.
Benjamin Fransham plays Verwoerd, the mark. We are introduced to him in a monologue where he half-justifies apartheid, distances himself from Hitler and gives a lecture on effective public speaking. The speech is delivered in a loping, authoritarian lilt: the knit-browed earnestness of a Don Brash crossed with the calm, sensible appeal of a Peter Dunne. It is Verwoerd who first presents himself as the smiling assassin. Fransham is perfect for the role – he is tall and gaunt with sallow cheekbones and a steel intensity underpinning everything he does, like Max von Sydow or James Cromwell can sometimes look and act on screen. When his layer of gentility is finally stripped, charm yields to terror, and another of the play’s identity crises is presented.
Identity is, unsurprisingly, the big theme here, alongside madness, love, culpability, spirituality, guilt and the obvious moral issues that will come with any story set in South Africa during apartheid. But it’s not just the superficial question of Tsafendas’ own racial identity; it’s national identity, relative personal identity and how people identify with various roles in a society. Everyone, from doctors to ministers to prostitutes, seems to be keenly aware of the limitations of their roles, and convey frustration or resignation accordingly.
This is a long, theatrical play presented almost as a sketch comedy show, a perfect fit for the Bacchanals. At the same time, it feels different from anything they’ve attempted before. Where other productions of theirs have felt open-ended and celebratory, I.D. is polished and finite. Mature even. There is still the exuberance you associate with a Bacchanals show, but it feels somehow safer and more reverent; a definitive version rather than an interpretation. This is not to say les enfants terribles are growing up. On the contrary, they’re really only continuing with their cheeky experiments in the theatre. It’s just that this time the experiment happens to be a big contemporary play, not Shakespeare, not Sarah Kane. This is why I’d be feeling scared if I were part of any company or theatre demanding ridiculously inflated ticket prices. The Bacchanals can do it too, fellas.
I.D. plays at Bats in Wellington till Saturday
Other people who should have been mentioned favourably in this review: Tony Hopkins, Miria George, Erin Banks, James Stewart, Hadleigh Walker, Salesi Le’ota, Eleanor Williams, Sonal Patel and David Lawrence
– Jonathan Potts, studentz.co.nz