Postcards From America **** / Nowhere To Belong: Tales Of An Extravagant Stranger *** /
Breakfast With Mugabe ****
Various venues, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 19 October, 2005

The second RSC New Work Festival has a more international focus than last year's inaugural batch of work. Nothing radical, to judge by the first shows to open: the return of Yasmin Alibhai-Brown's account of growing up as a Shakespeare-besotted Asian Ugandan, a double bill of pieces dealing with American attitudes in the face of different kinds of violence, and a grim fantasy about Robert Mugabe undergoing psychotherapy. Of the sometimes bewildering patchiness of last year's bill, though, there is thankfully little evidence.

The Postcards From America pairing begins with a 20-minute solo, Elective Affinities. Suzanne Burden engages as Alice, a wealthy elderly lady-who-lunches, but David Adjmi's writing is unsubtle in having her win our attention before unveiling callous attitudes to torture and human rights which she justifies because she has the money and status to hold them: an emblem, we infer, of America's stance on the world stage. Far stronger is its partner piece Eric LaRue, in which the mother of a teenager who shot dead three of his high-school classmates tries to come to terms with his actions. The subject matter of Brett Neveu's play has been eclipsed in the national psyche since its composition in 2001, but it remains mordant in laying bare the inadequacy of doctrinaire approaches to "coping", be they evangelical Christianity or over-prescriptive counselling. As Janice LaRue comes to realise how her entire family has been consistently ostracised by their soi-disant Christian community, Lia Williams' magnificently gaunt, drained but ever flintier performance reminds one of the from-blank intensity she brought to the first British stage portrayal of student Carol in David Mamet's Oleanna.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has apparently been working on Nowhere To Belong: Tales Of An Extravagant Stranger since its première last year (which I did not see). Despite early ambitions to act, as detailed in her account of her Kampala school production of Romeo And Juliet in which the Montagues were played by Africans and the Capulets by Asians, Alibhai-Brown remains principally a journalistic social commentator. The main Ugandan part of her account is beautifully written but diffidently delivered (albeit with clear commitment to her performance); she only makes real eye contact with the audience in the intimate Cox's Yard studio and becomes genuinely animated when making connections between her own experiences and recent headline episodes of racial tension in Britain, yet these segments are tonally at odds with the piece as a whole.

Breakfast With Mugabe in the Swan has a white Zimbabwean psychiatrist trying to unravel the paranoia of the "father of the nation", who believes himself haunted by the unquiet spirit of a murdered ZANU-PF comrade and ascribes any problems in the doctor-patient relationship, as he does most of his country's difficulties, to continuing racial oppression. But this play by Fraser Grace (co-author of the recent true-life South African journalistic drama Who Killed Mr Drum? at London's Riverside Studios) contains a dazzling number of vectors of political and psychological power-play between the four figures onstage. Antony Sher's production presents with insightful clarity the various personal agendas, and the differing versions of the past which collide in Mugabe: the former white tyranny, the sometimes lethally violent factionalism within the liberation struggle, hinted-at family tensions and tragedies, and the deeper folk tradition in which ancestors and other dead remain active in one's life. Joseph Mydell captures both outward accuracy and a dramatic truth in his portrayal of Mugabe; David Rintoul is on the top of his form as the psychiatrist; Christopher Obi is an imposing presence as the presidential security goon; but most compelling is the ever-magnetic Noma Dumezweni as Mugabe's much younger wife, who plays her own game more strategically than any of the others.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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