Gail Louw is a South African writer, now based in Britain, who is attempting to put a slice of her nation’s history on stage. She does so through a confrontation between the disgraced ex-president, Jacob Zuma, and one of his fiercest critics, Ronnie Kasrils a former ANC minister of intelligence. Louw’s ambition is laudable but, while her play suggests its antagonists are old men irrelevant to a post-apartheid generation, it too seems preoccupied with the past.
Zuma, suffering prostate problems, and Kasrils, who has possible skin cancer, meet in a private hospital. They instantly relive their recent battles in which Kasrils has led the charges of corruption against Zuma. But we are also reminded that the two men were once comrades who read the Communist Manifesto together and who fought for freedom, justice and equality. As they rake over the past, their nurse puts in various appearances in the guise of Kasrils’ first wife, a Christian missionary, a Zuma-attacking MP and even Nelson Mandela.
Like any good dramatist, Louw strives to be fair to both sides. She doesn’t disguise Zuma’s sexual predatoriness and financial greed but also reminds us of his former radicalism and the 10 years he spent on Robben Island. Meanwhile Kasrils, for all his political passion and anti-apartheid struggles, enjoys the privilege that comes from being a white man in South Africa. But, while the play is honest, it suffers from a lack of logic.
If, as the nurse finally argues, a new South African generation is impatient with old fights and faces problems of its own, one wonders why Louw doesn’t write about them.
Vik Sivalingam’s production, however, is vigorously performed. Andrew Francis conveys Zuma’s charisma and his rapacity, Jack Klaff as Kasrils captures perfectly the decayed hopes of the leftwing idealist and Bu Kunene, as the nurse, manages to combine the difficult duality of embodying the past while also being a symbol of the future. It’s a play that raises big issues but not without a degree of awkward contrivance.
•At Jermyn Street theatre, London, until 2 November.