By Ray Bennett
LONDON – “I dream of a girl waiting for me somewhere in Africa,” says Demetrious Tsafendas, a man of very mixed heritage but mostly Greek and Mozambican who appears unable to settle anywhere. Mostly that’s due to officious immigration officers and petty bureaucrats but when this much-traveled wayfarer finally settles it’s in South Africa where he assassinates the prime minister.
Noted actor Anthony Sher, in his first play, relishes exploring the true story of how Tsafendas, a temporary parliamentary messenger, came to stab to death Hendrik Verwoerd, the Dutch-born “architect of apartheid” in 1966. In Sher’s hands, it becomes a story of identity – the “I.D.” of the title – that affects everyone in South Africa in that sorry time. This includes not only Tsafendas but Verwoerd, who is portrayed as a man deeply conflicted in his own sense of identity, having been a keen supporter of Nazi Germany before going to South Africa.
For Tsafendas, rendered as a kind of sad-sack Odysseus, his Penelope is a black woman and in order to be able to woo her he claims to be mulatto in order be re-registered as “colored.” There is a jarring scene in which a uniformed jobsworth uses calipers to measure his lips and nose and pushes a pencil into his hair to see how tightly it curls.
Director Nancy Meckler uses an almost bare stage with only a desk that rises and sinks to build the landscape for what becomes an oppressively dour saga. Tsafendas served 28 years in jail for the murder and we see him encased in a narrow cage that rattles every time another convict shudders on the gallows. They are brutal images and serve to underline the terror of that time.
Sher employs another device that works less convincingly. Tsafendas claimed that he was unbalanced as the result of having borne in his body a massive tapeworm since he was young. The South African authorities actually chose to regard him as insane in order not to have the kind of trial, and outcome, that might make him a martyr.
Strangely, Sher makes the tapeworm — Lintwurm — into a living, breathing character with a bullet head and a foul mouth. It’s an odd sort of alter ego and when Tsafentas turns to speak to the Lintwurm in the middle of other scenes it becomes distracting.
This surrealism does not detract, however, from the precision of the political scenes in which officers try to justify apartheid nor from the power of the scenes of interrogation and intimidation.
Sher makes his Tsafentas a bit too much a crowd-pleaser to be entirely believable but he is well accomplished in the art of being ingratiating. As the Lintwurm, Alex Fearns is a feral if not wholly believable presence and Marius Weyers portrays the mild-mannered evil of Verwoerd with utter conviction. The remainder of the cast performs admirably and while the production lingers in the mind, the longer thought is that Sher will almost certainly write better plays.
Venue: Almeida Theatre, runs through October 18; Cast: Anthony Sher, Marius Weyers, Alex Ferns, Jennifer Woodburne; Playwright: Anthony Sher; Director: Nancy Meckler; Designer: Katrina Lindsay; Lighting designer: Johanna Town; Music: Ilona Sekacz; Movement: Scarlett Mackmin; Sound: John Leonard; South African Music Consultant: Sello Maake Ka Ncube.
This review appeared in The Hollywood Reporter. Photo by Tristram Kenton.