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Posts Tagged ‘The Arrest of Ai WeiWei’

I have to confess I don’t know a lot about Indian independence and partition; the subject of this play. My school history studies ended in 1914 and my interest in ‘current affairs’ didn’t start until the 1960’s. Anything I know about everything that happened in between has come from TV, film and written historical reviews.

Howard Benton focuses on the five or six weeks leading up to partition and independence, when the British PM, Clement Attlee, sent a judge out to determine the borders between India & Pakistan. Cyril Radcliffe had never been to Asia let alone India and knew nothing about maps! The representatives which each interested party appointed to advise him were obviously partisan and somewhat immovable. Brenton speculates humourously that the only thing they would agree on is that ‘flushing’ is better than ‘blocking’ as a solution to Radcliffe’s sickness! The Viceroy, as the King’s representative rather than the government’s, could not and would not become involved. The contentious points were Kashmir, Calcutta and The Punjab.

Faced with a seemingly impossible task, Radcliffe’s decisions became a bit random, but he drew the line. Brenton contests that when he delivered his conclusion, Mountbatten (the Viceroy) pressurised him to change the outcome for The Punjab. He suggests that this was to save his marriage, as his wife had in fact put pressure on him – she was apparently having an affair with Nehru, Indian PM designate, who was the source of this pressure. The play ends at the point where the new Indian and Pakistani leaders address their respective independent nations, with a stunning coup d’theatre to suggest the immediate consequences.

Brenton has written some great historical plays in the last fifteen years, including Never So Good (about the Macmillan years), Anne Boleyn and The Arrest of Ai WeiWei and he says in a programme interview that he tries to be concise, to be a storyteller, with the action in the present, and I think he succeeds in that respect. He achieves a lot in under two hours playing time and though unable to go into great depth he does clarify and illuminate. Given the subject matter, it’s surprisingly light and easy to digest.

The tone of the play does however follow the populist, revisionist tendency to blame everything on the colonial power. He doesn’t give any airtime to alternative solutions, or to the possibility that there were no viable alternatives. Subsequent events, here and in other parts of the world, would suggest that this may well be the case. Colonialist-bashing isn’t really objective enough for credible historical review.

Howard Davies’ smooth flowing production serves the play well. Tim Hatley has designed an elegant and evocative set of carved wooden screens. The ensemble is excellent, with fine central performances from Tom Beard as Radcliffe, Andrew Havill as Mountbatten, Lucy Black as his wife and Silas Carson as Nehru.

It’s great to see full houses for theatre like this. The rest of the run is sold out but, like Ai WeiWei before it, it will be live streamed on Saturday 11th January. Watch it if you can.

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This was my first (long overdue) visit to Hampstead Theatre’s Downstairs space. As it happens the play didn’t actually start there, but in a ‘pop up’ university lecture room in the foyer where Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela recalls her visits to prison to interview Eugene de Kock after his appearances at the South African Truth & Reconciliation hearings. As she begins to describe her arrival in prison for the first time, we walk into it and take our places peering into the cell where they meet.

de Kock was known as ‘Prime Evil’ and Gobodo-Madikizela, a psychologist and member of the commission, is fascinated by him. During the hearings he asked to meet his victims families privately so that he could apologise. This initiative, and the expressions of forgiveness by the families, struck many and led to more meetings between perpetrators of crimes and victim’s families. It also led to Gobodo-Madikizela’s desire to understand de Kock and those like him. For the rest of the play we are with them, on two occasions six years apart, with just the occasional presence of a prison guard.

I’ve always been in awe of the concept and execution of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, convinced that I personally could never find the capacity to understand or forgive, but understanding both its power and importance. The play isn’t really about that though; it’s a peep into the mind of ‘Prime Evil’ in an attempt to understand the motivation and events behind horrific crimes.

It does prove to be a voyeuristic experience, thanks to the cell bars of Paul Wills’ design and intensity created by lights and sound, but it’s the intensity of the performances that allow you to examine and attempt to understand at an objective psychological level. Matthew Marsh (is he the most hard-working stage actor we have?) conveys a cold intelligence, seemingly devoid of any feeling or emotion with a spot-on Afrikaan accent that makes your flesh crawl recalling hearing accents like it in the past. Nomer Dumerzweni brilliantly conveys Gobodo-Madikizela’s forensic approach and suppressed horror.

Nicholas Wright has adapted Gobodo-Madikizela’s book and Jonathan Munby has staged it well to give us a very thought-provoking and insightful 80 minutes and a somehow appropriate companion piece to The Arrest of Ai WeiWei upstairs.

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