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A CurtainUp LondonLondon Review
by Lizzie Loveridge

He thinks he knows what is best for South Africa. Now what could be madder than that?
--- Verwoerd debating the sanity of a previous would-be assassin
Antony Sher as Demetrios Tsafendas and Alex Ferns as Lintwurm
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Antony Sher proves his versatility, best known as an actor but also as a writer, with this first play about the events leading up to the 1966 shooting of the architect of apartheid, the Prime Minister of South Africa, Hendrik Verwoerd. Called I.D. because it explores two men looking for an identity, Verwoerd (Marius Weyers) and his assassin, Demetrios Tsafendas, played here by Sher. With Shared Experience's (or should that be SHER'd Experience?) Nancy Meckler directing, we can be sure that I.D. will incorporate physical theatre.

Is it basically a history play? Does it relate the events factually? Does it attempt to answer the "why" questions rather than just the "what happened" ones? Yes, to all these. Does it answer these questions satisfactorily? Sometimes. Does it have startling insights or resonances for today? Are there lessons to be learnt from these events? Well, if there are, they passed me by.

Sher built the play after reading A Mouthful of Glass a biography of Demetrious Tsafendas by the Dutch author Henk van Woerden. The portrayal is quite convincing of this rootless man who had lived in so many countries, been buffeted from state to state, his life story consists of stays in over twenty countries, many of which he was deported from or incarcerated in psychiatric hospitals. His story is that with a white Greek father and a "Mulatto" mother he should have been classified as "coloured" not "white". The South African authorities' refusal to do this separated him under apartheid legislation from Helen Daniels (Cleo Sylvestre), a woman he had fallen in love with, and meant that he could not lodge in her house or attend her church.

So Tsafendas had good reason for hating apartheid and its protagonist Verwoerd. After his arrest, rather than challenge the existing political system, it was decided to treat Tsafendas as insane, as was done with David Pratt who had made an attempt on Verwoerd's life in 1960. Tsafendas' "insanity" was tracked back to an infestation with tapeworm he might have picked up from eating uncooked pork in a boarding school in South Africa. This tapeworm or Lintwurm (Alex Ferns) is given a physical presence in I.D. and plays Tsafendas' anger, bitterness, violent, dark side.

There is also an attempt to portray the sincerity of Verwoerd's vision for separate or parallel growth, dividing South Africa along racial lines. The result we all know was oppression and the stifling of voices like those of Nelson Mandela. Verwoerd's ideas are so gross to the twenty-first century ear that the audience's reaction was to laugh. Verwoerd, previously a Professor of Applied Psychology before he entered politics, was twenty years behind the Fascist movement in Europe in the 1930s before he was elected to power, although his ideas for a Purified National Party were first expressed in 1935. Sadly the incidents in I.D. of Verwoerd's life largely contribute not to understanding but to caricature. This is the play I would have found more interesting - not about the drifter whom everyone would have forgotten had he not killed an international figure - but what made the Afrikaans morally comfortable with the actuality of apartheid.

There are cracking good performances from all the cast and the two and a half hours moves along at a fair pace. The second act opens with a pretty piece of descriptive writing from Sher as Tsafendas lyrically describes his impressions of the House of Assembly where he is employed as a parliamentary messenger. There are convincing pictures of the bureaucracy of the regime, the quaint tests Tsafendas has to endure as he attempts racial reclassification, like the measurement of his lips and whether a pencil can be held in his hair. I liked the scene where a black African has to dig Verwoerd's grave but when alone his pleasure slowly finds expression and he can celebrate future freedom by dancing on the grave of his oppressor.

The play goes beyond Verwoerd's death to show Tsafendas' life in prison in a tiny cell on Robben Island where he can hear the executions by hanging. The play ends where it began, in the pleasant asylum Tsafendas was transferred to after the handing over of power to the New South Africa. Who can forget in the first scene the emergence of the Tapeworm, like the creature in Alien as he wriggles out from under a blanket over Tsafendas' wheelchair, in his snakeskin shirt and Nazi jodphurs? Betsie Verwoerd (Jennifer Woodburne), like Calpurnia, asks her husband not to go to the "Senate" on that fateful day.

By giving an actor the part of the tapeworm, is the play saying that Demetrios Tsafendas was insane all along? But was it insane to want to rid South Africa of apartheid? This is a brave first play on an enormous subject, but one which might have benefited from a tighter focus of purpose. Readers may wish to take a look at a review of The Island, Athol Fugard's play about life in prison on Robben Island

Written by Antony Sher
Directed by Nancy Meckler

Starring: Antony Sher
With: Jon Cartwright, Jonathan Duff, Alex Ferns, Pal Herzberg, Peter Landi, Lucian Msamati, Oscar Pearce, Cleo Sylvestre, Christopher Wells, Marius Weyers, Jennifer Woodburne
Designer: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting Designer: Johanna Towne
Music: Ilona Sekacz
Movement: Scarlett Mackmin
Sound: John Leonard
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with one interval .
Box Office: 020 7359 4404
Booking to 18th October 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 5th September 2003 Performance at the Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1 (TubeStation: Angel/Highbury and Islington)
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