“White South Africans needed a scapegoat, black South Africans needed a culprit”
There’s a neat little twist to the staging of the latest play to be put on in the downstairs space at the Hampstead Theatre which cocks a snook at audiences rushing to secure the best seat in the house. A Human Being Died That Night starts in the foyer area, which has been dressed up as a conference room, as South African psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela prepares to give a talk on “The human capacity for evil and the possibility of forgiveness”. She served on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a restorative justice body that sought to aid South Africa’s transition into a post-apartheid world by acknowledging the gross human rights violations carried out under that regime’s name, receiving testimony from the victims but also hearing from those who perpetrated the crimes in an attempt to come to terms with it all.
As part of the commission, Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed one of the most notorious figures of the era, Eugene de Kock, and as she describes the first of her visits to Pretoria Central Prison to see him, the play moves into the theatre as we’re transported into the chilling darkness of a prison cell (so it is actually better to sit on the back row of the ‘lecture theatre’ to get the best spot for the majority of the play…). From here, we bear witness to the young Harvard-educated black woman probing into the mind of the seemingly implacable police colonel nicknamed ‘Prime Evil’ as her fascination with him drives her to search for something of an understanding about why he did what he did, in the hope of forging a new, better South Africa.
Nicholas Wright has adapted Gobodo-Madikizela’s book of the affair into a brutally terse 80 minutes, which largely maintains a gripping sense of intensity as a catalogue of unimaginable crimes are picked apart as the very limits of forgiveness are tested. And Jonathan Munby’s production recognises the strengths of the space in keeping the set minimal – Paul Wills’ design is starkly simple – and focusing on some excoriatingly good acting and perfect casting. Noma Dumezweni radiates bright intellect as the psychologist and her extraordinary capacity for undertaking the job at hand, not immune from recoiling with horror but steadily determined to find the man behind the monster. And Matthew Marsh is just outstanding as the prisoner de Kock, terrifyingly calm yet with a cold, emotionless manner that weights his rationalisations with a ghastly sheen, especially in his well-observed Afrikaans accent.
The tight focus of the play, just two prison visits between the pair are covered albeit across a period of six years, means that there is the occasional lull where similar ground is retrodden and the pace slips a little. But when it does open out, there are fascinating insights into how apartheid shaped the psyche of so many South Africans – Pumla’s relationship with Cape Town is revelatory – and its impact on the new blight on the nation – which rears its ugly head towards the end of the play – is undeniable. The sharp intelligence of the text, the genuinely thought-provoking nature of the subject matter and its brave ambiguity in place of easy moral judgement makes it a mesmerising watch and a privileged opportunity to watch such great acting up close.