10 August 1989
A Traverse Theatre Production
CHIEF WARDER............Bill Leadbitter
Awarded a Scotsman Neswpaper Fringe First
Edinburgh Festival, 1989
HANGING THE PRESIDENT (Traverse)
"Find a more powerful piece of theatre on
the Fringe! Steal yourself and see it!"
(Evening News, August 19, 1989)
“I wanted them to beat me. The hurt makes me feel alive”.
Ian Brown's uncompromising production of Michele Celeste's South African death-row drama is as violent as it is intense. The claustrophobia of the new studio theatre suits Kathy Strachan's prison cell set perfectly. A continuous soundtrack of echoing institutionalised noise reverberates outside, while two Afrikaaners fret and fight through their final hours of life. Only the stecnch of disinfectant is missing to complete the picture of caged confinement.
This is not a simplistic condemnation of apartheid, although its intentions are clear. It is a rich and sophisticated study of human deceit and betrayal born out of desperation. The men play cruel power games and avoid facing their own moral bankruptcy by using violence and sex. As their night wears on and the possibility of a last minutre reprieve diminishes , so the performance increases in its intensity.
The arrival of a black political prisoner towards the end of the play pulls the outside world inside the cell and subtly forces the two whites to face their own consciences. “He's trying to tell us there are things worth dying for,” cries Stoffel (Stuart Hepburn), about to be deposed by default from his reigning position of prison `president.'.
This is a frighteningly powerful production. The hurt makes your feel alive.
"A compelling and disturbing exercise in pure theatre."
W. Gordon Smith, THE OBSERVER, Scotland.
Ian Brown, Artistic Director
of the Traverse Theatre,
director of the world premiere
of Hanging the President.
A year after he became artistic director of Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, Ian Brown (above) has become the man to whom playwrights entrust their contentious scripts. This summer he directs Hanging the President, Michele Celeste's turbulent play about apartheid and winner of the International Prize in the Mobil Playwright competition. While London's Royal Court has had to close The Theatre Upstairs, and economic restraints affect theatres everywhere, the 100-seater Traverse continues to forge a reputation for populist experimentation. Brown believes its success owes much to the Scottish tradition of physical theatre: "much gutsier," he says, "than its English counterpart." For the record he is not Scottish (nor, for that matter, are any of The Traverse's past artistic directors, who include Max Stafford-Clark and Jenny Killick) but he shares the national taste for muscular theatre. "I'd defend to my dying breath the right to stage an uncommercial play and to preserve The Traverse as a platform for young writers." (Vogue)
THE STAGE, August 31, 1989
No holds barred
HANGING THE PRESIDENT
STOFFEL thinks he is President Botha, fellow Death Row prisoner Nak is his Commissioner of Prisons and the chief warder at the pail is a willing Minister of Justice. The two prisoners are convicted Afrikaan murderers hopefully awaiting a last-minute reprieve on the night before they are due to hang.
Violent Stoffel is an egomaniac whose sanity lapses frequently throughout the play, transforming him into the president and leader of a mutinous sect in the jail. Nak, an expectant father, is Stoffel's "wife" and Nak's picture of his legitimate wife Stoffel's sexual gratification.
The homosexual chief warder vies for both their attentions and they for his in return for last-minute requests in the hours before the gallows loom. Scenes of buggery, masturbation and defecation are not avoided.
Into this mortifying scenario is thrown in Zwanini, a black "political" who paints a victory sign on the cell wall in blood seeping from his torture wounds.
The murderers beat Zwanini bcfore finally learning to respect his defiance of them, the authorities, and his high dignity in the face of death. But be rejects their respect as they are led to the rope, Stoffel and Nak destroyed by the prospect of dying.
This is the premierc of Michele Celeste's first professionally-produced play, which won the Mobil Royal Exchange New Writing Competition last year. It is magnificent theatre, and quite brilliantly performed by the Traverse's own excellent company.
It would be quite unfair to dwell on individual performances, but Stuart Hepburn deserves a special mention for his uncompromising, full-blooded portrayal of Stoffel. Hanging The President must be one of the best plays to have come out of the Fringe for years. Tony Snape
Savagery out of Africa
This is a concentration of claustrophobia and degradation, moral, physical and political. Michele Celeste's Hanging The President, now being premiered at the Traverse Theatre as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe programme there, last year won the International Prize in the Mobil/Royal Exchange New Writing Competition -and it seems likely that the judges were left slightly stunned by the controlled savagery of the script.
In a Pretoria prison, two Afrikaaners are condemned to hang: a rare example, designed to say to a censorious outside world that justice under apartheid is even-handed, meted out to whites too. We spend one night with the condemned, the night leading to their dawn execution, and a violent, stinking, sex-and-fear filled night it is.
The prisoners rail against their betrayal by the system they salute and support, and bit by bit their personal fates and crimes are seen to be enmeshed with the political framework which has nurtured them: their little brutalities set within the context of a much larger, institutionalised brutality.
Celeste is no simplistic preacher though, bleating that a nasty system automatically makes nasty people. The tension in the cell is shot through with the basic needs for some kind of love, dignity, certainty, submerged beneath the bestial benaviour and sexual bartering of two murderers and their warder.
The thuggish, anguished Stoffel acts out bizarre, wish-fulfilling fantasies of the reverede President P W Botha who may yet grant a reprieve. When a newly tortured black man is thrown into their cell, their outrage reaches a climax -- he becomes the focus for all the years of hatred. They cannot even accept that his corpse will hang alongside theirs.
This production takes place in the suitably, almost unbearably enclosed and airless space of the Traverse's second theatre with a great, grey sloping roof pressing ominously down.
Ian Brown's direction goes for full frontal confrontation in all senses (its worth noting I that a warning for those of delicate sensibilities is printed in the Traverse own brochure but not in the Fringe programme).
Stuart Hepburn as Stoffel and Mark Faith as Nak give performances of total commitment, fighting, swearing. pleading, rutting their way through a piece that, despite a defiant black salute at the end, promises no easy triumph for anyone.
August 11, 1989
NIGHT OF PASSION
THE Traverse last night triumphantly opened its latest Festival offering, "Hanging the President" by Michele Celeste.
The "President" in question is a white South African called Stoffel who is on death row for murdering and mutilating his wife because she "betrayed" him. He shares his cell with another white murderer Nak, and we are witness to their last night on earth.
A powerful man within the predatory prison regime, the psychopathic Stoffel alternately pretends and believes he is President P W Botha, a state of mind which allows the playwright to indulge in sharp political satire.
Tensions become unbearable when, shortly before the time of execution, the two prisoners are joined by another sentenced man, a black political prisoner.
The play is grimly realistic, highly emotionally charged, politically powerful, psychologically convincing and dramatically riveting.
Stuart Hepburn gives a quite superb performance as Stoffel, and he is in excellent company with equally memorable performances from Bill Leadbitter as the chief warder, Mark Faith as Nak, and Adrian Lester as Zwanini, the condemned prisoner of war.
There's no doubt this Traverse Studio production will sell out. Ian Brown's direction goes for the jugular with only the slight reservation that the ending is rather unnecessarily agit-prop. But this is a real Traverse success and should on no account be missed. Book now.
The tension builds for Zwanini (Adrian Lester), the Chief Warder (Bill Leadbitter),
Nak (Mark Faith) and Stoffel (Stuart Hepburn)
SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY,
August 13, 1989
THE Traverse's new studio space has become a tiny-death row prison cell for a raw, gut-wrenching and deeply disturbing new play about South Africa.
A visit to this cell, where two white murderers await their execution, is to come face to face with a strain of naked violence, betrayal and burning racism that is shocking and repulsive. Nevertheless, Michele Celeste's Hanging The President is a rare and totally convincing work of theatre which demands to be seen.
Celeste's play is unique because it works effectively on so many levels. For a start, his two murderers, Stoffel and Nak, find themselves in an unusual position. They are to be executed not for political reasons (like many blacks), but as an example to the world that all South Africans receive equal justice under the law.
They are also enmeshed in a fascinating play-acting relationship wherein Stoffel, a brutally disturbed career criminal, fancies himself to be P W Botha, the former President. Nak, for his part, plays Minister of Justice and on a more personal level, serves as `wife' and handmaiden to Stoffel. They are, of course, prison lovers; heterosexual men driven to homosexuality as a brief respite from the horrors of prison life.
We meet them on the last night of their lives, desperately awaiting a reprieve, and torturing each other into a frenzy of self-flagellation. But Celeste doesn't stop here. He also interprets their relationship with the prison's Chief Warder, a sado-masochist in the extreme.
Into this maelstrom trudges a young black activist, Zwanini, who's been assigned to the cell due to lack of space elsewhere. The subsequent release of violence and anger is almost overwhelming.
Celeste is unabashed about his politics, but also has the good sense to avoid blatant moralising. He can rest assured the turmoil that is South Africa is more than adequately echoed in the small, brutally naturalistic world of his play.
All the performances in lan Brown's meticulously crafted production are superb. Stuart Hepburn as Stoffel is a frightening monster of violence and manipulation, with lightning-bolt punches and death-grips. Mark Faith as Nak, is completely the opposite, but equally compelling. And Bill Leadbitter as the Chief Warder is a convict's nightmare, feigning compassion as he describes the physical effects of death by hanging. Together, they wrestle Hanging The President into a riveting psychological study of prison life, which then becomes a stunning microcosm for the storm of hatred continually tearing South Africa apart.