Fear is on the prowl in Zimbabwe — in, sadly, the real Zimbabwe, and in the Zimbabwe of Fraser Grace’s Breakfast with Mugabe, the RSC New Work production now at the Soho Theatre in London. The beast first unleashed, perhaps, when a group of Australopithicenes turned first on a sabre-toothed tiger and made themselves not prey but predator, the beast of revenge, of the anger born of suffering, is here. It was reined-in, controlled, soothed, managed — so miraculously — in South Africa by Nelson Mandela, but not in Zimbabwe.
So it is appropriate that Grace should build his play around a psychiatrist — a white, liberal psychiatrist who’s spent his life studying the intersection of western thought on the brain and African spirituality — called in to treat the problems of President Robert Mugabe (Joseph Mydell), who’s being tormented by a ngozi, the angry spirit of a former comrade-in-arms. The psychiatrist, Andrew Perric (David Rintoul) — in appearance and voice all bluff, red-faced classic settler type — is patently aware of the dangers of his position, but determined to turn the President into “Robert,” the patient. Although his motives might just extend beyond a doctor’s desire to heal.
The lighter relief — this is always dark comedy, but there is no shortage of laughs — come chiefly through Grace Mugabe (Noma Dumezwemi). She is brittle, smart, and grasping, with no illusions about the way modern Zimbabwe functions. Grace doesn’t fear ghosts, but has a healthy horror of her husband’s mental instability. Her scene with the strong-arm bodyguard Gabriel (Christopher Obi) — no angel he — conducted entirely in Shona, except for two key words, “Mercedes” and “Coupe”, is a tiny comic masterpiece of writing and acting.
As befits a play centred on psychiatry, nothing much happens in Breakfast with Mugabe; mostly it is talk that gradually reveals the reason why this particular ghost might be troubling the President quite so much. Yet he finds a solution of sorts, a solution played out powerfully in a mass crowd scene that makes your lungs shake with its power. Mydell does a fine job with Mugabe here, and in the more personal scenes, resisting the urge to take the “mad dictator” role too far. (Although I suspect the actor won’t be going on holiday to Zimbabwe any time soon.)
The action mostly, however, occurs at the presidential palace, backed by the spookily smooth electronic gates to which Gabriel holds apparently the only controls. The set is neatly done, suggesting luxury — that Louis-the-something style scene the Third World over — without cluttering the scene with frills. The lighting is remarkable for its ability to create shadows in the midst of stark brightness, particularly it seems on the face of Grace.
There are faults in this play and this production — the language is sometimes rather forced and stilted, the sudden shifts in mood inadequately explained or accounted for — but it is a powerful contribution to the debates not just about Zimbabwe, but about Africa, and indeed the whole post-colonial world. Is it possible to forgive and forget, or at least find a way to live with the scars and the pain without beginning the cycle of abuse anew?
The production continues at the Soho Theatre (with online booking) until April 22. Another view: The London Theatre Guide.