What a difference a few months make for actress Noma Dumezweni, who confidently steps into a new role in her directorial debut at the Royal Court. At the last minute, Dumezweni recently took on Kim Cattrall’s lead role in Linda to great acclaim and is cast to play Hermione in the highly anticipated Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Now she takes on Mongiwekhaya’s new piece of writing about the struggles between different generations in South Africa. A place where history and the mother tongue seem on the verge of being erased.
Set in post-apartheid South Africa, I See You opens on the ex-freedom fighter-turned-policeman Buthelezi, played heartbreakingly well by Desmond Dube. Buthelezi is preparing for his usual night shift, lit by a lunar spotlight, when his police partner enters and tells Buthelezi his wife has issued a court order against him. This sets the scene and brings Buthelezi’s generally volatile disposition to the forefront, his reaction indicating an instability. It’s a Friday night and it will be a long one.
Dancing in a club two strangers meet. Benjamin Mthombeni, a young Law undergraduate and Skinn, a young Afrikaans woman who are both a little lost and looking for a good time. Heading out for a drive and a smoke they flirt until the flashing lights of a cop car signals warning and creates panic in the two teens. Stepping out of the car, Ben is unable to communicate with the officers when they speak Zulu and when Skinn tries to blackmail Buthelezi the tension escalates, resulting in Ben being thrown in the back of the police van.
As the night progresses and Buthelezi’s anger at the injustice of his world mounts, Ben is roughly taught a lesson by the officer who wants to understand why this ‘Cheeseboy’ (someone who can afford cheese in their fridge) has let his mother tongue wither. The complex relationship between history and language are woven together as Ben and Buthelezi explore what it means to be black in present day South Africa. Although all the actors are impressive, it is Dube’s darkness that is so captivating, as when he violently reacts to Ben who he sees as straddling both the West and Africa without a thought for the history that allowed him to grow up free.
I See You, a common Zulu greeting, shows the psychological ‘blocks’ that exist after such a bloody past and Dumezweni does a great job at unpacking the truths from the characters whilst maintaining tension. Although the plot meandered a little and some of the characters seemed stereotyped, overall the play (a transfer from Johannesburg) illuminates the current South African struggle with delicate humour.
I See You plays until the 26th March at The Royal Court Theatre where tickets start at £10. Box office: 020-7565-5000.