I See You

What happens to your sense of identity when the world in which that self was created dramatically changes? If you lived to fight, what if the outcome of that fight wasn't what you believed you were fighting for? This is the epic nature of the situation in Mongiwekhaya's I See You – the latest piece to be staged at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs as part of The Big Idea (a strand of new plays that offer radical thinking) – where the identity is heritage generally and race specifically, and the fight was for the end of Apartheid in South Africa. No small issues here.

Undoubtedly this has an important story to tell and it is worthy that the Royal Court continues to develop and promote new writing in this way. But an important story alone does not make for good theatre.

The story – based on a real encounter – takes place over one night some years post-Apartheid (it's not that clear how many) and shows the dramatic events that unfold when opposing beliefs and backgrounds collide. The characters' identities clash to the extent that they are too angry to understand each others' (if an understanding would ever be possible, as diametrically opposed as they are), leading to violent and dangerous mental and physical power play. The two main extreme protagonists are 19-year-old Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi, lacking the depth of emotion for someone so damaged as a child) – who is viewed as a 'coconut' and a 'cheeseboy', for enjoying the 'white privilege' of studying law at University – and Sergeant Buthelezi, a 55 year old Ex-MK soldier, now a policeman with a restraining order against him from his wife and only working nights as he fears waking in the dark since his fight was 'sold out' (played as a physical ball of anger and aggression by Desmond Dube).

On this night, Ben has met 17-year-old white Afrikaner, 'Skinn' (beaten by her boyfriend, over-sexualised but with a need to be loved – a rather obvious mix that Jordan Baker unsurprisingly struggles to nuance) and has been pulled over by Buthelezi and his partner Masinga (who is either corrupt for wanting to do illegal deals, or honest for his discomfort at the later actions of his partner – one can't be certain) for potentially drink-driving. Ben can't (or won't) speak his native language to the police, is traitorous for being with a white girl, and then Skinn tries to bribe them – all of which light the touch paper of Buthelezi's anger, representing a complete lack of respect for his heritage, and his inner explosion leads to the kidnap and torture of Ben until the reasons for their different beliefs come to the fore; I see you.

It's a powerful story and one which will likely – and sadly – resonate even more when this goes to play at the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. However, there are many cultural references here that may be less recognisable to an ordinary London audience – the use of Zulu, Afrikaans and Xhosa (as well as English) throughout the dialogues, whilst clearly representative of the complex issues of a mutil-ethnic society, is also somewhat distancing for us (without checking the script notes). And the language that is used to make the important points is often more poetic than realistic so whilst they are meant to be arguments in conversation, they come across as chest-beating monologues.

Visually, the lack of any set or idea of any settings gives no context or structure – again distancing us from the story and becoming more like a podium on which to speak as opposed to a place where action is happening. This means there is no sense of the kidnap tension as there is no feeling of the claustrophobia of the van Ben is trapped in. And the violent scenes where Ben is beaten are so clearly choreographed that we only assume the horrific nature rather than feel it (I'm not suggesting the punches should be real but in such an intimate space, attention needs to be paid to how to make them seem more real).

There's also a huge amount of mobile phone conversations throughout – sometimes talking over each other, sometimes starting with the handset and speaking directly to each other (after all, there's no set) – which may be a comment on "not seeing you" but I think I'm clutching at the wrong straws with that; it just seems a way to have dialogue without the need for a stage. Overall there is no making use of what theatricality in general (and this space in particular) can offer to strengthen the power of the message – and so this feels more like an essay or a book that it does a play.

Undoubtedly this has an important story to tell and it is worthy that the Royal Court continues to develop and promote new writing in this way. But an important story alone does not make for good theatre. Where the last piece here, Yen, also tackled big issues but in a way that totally immersed and involved the audience with both its natural scripting and innovative use of movement and space, I See You seems only to be highlighting an event in history. I felt so distanced by having little else to get involved with that I ended up not caring about the rather unbelievable and unempathetic character representations (as they lack the depth to feel real and therefore seem just representative). It pains me to be too critical of bringing such recent history to our attention, but there is little more to be got from this than there would be from Googling that history away from the theatre.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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The Blurb

Post-Apartheid South Africa, after dark.

Ben meets Skinn for a night out. But the party is interrupted by the police. Ben, a young student who doesn’t know his own history, is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. And Officer Buthelezi, a former freedom fighter, can’t let it go.

Based on a real encounter.

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