Battersea Arts Centre,
30 May 1990
The only change in the cast from Edinburgh was Zwanini, played on this occasion by Clint Dyer
(Stuart Hepburn and Bill Leadbitter)
CITY LIMITS, June 7, 1990
HANGING THE PRESIDENT
by Michele Celeste
directed by Ian Brown
presented by Traverse Theatre (BAC)
Traverse Theatre's much vaunted production comes to London with its dynamism intact. Michele Celeste's award-winning play focuses full-frame on the psychological death-throes of two Afrikaaners awaiting execution in the grim confines of a tiny, South African prison-cell. To its immense credit, the play largely eschews familiar anti-apartheid polemic, allowing `comment' to merge through relentless action. As the clock ticks, so the border between fantasy and reality gradually disintegrates and a horrific, debased power struggle ensues, replete with sexual and physical violence of almost de Sadean intensity. The arrival of a third prisoner
- a black activist accused of murder - pitches the bizarre morality of dominance and suppression into frightening confusion. This is unashamedly ferocious theatre, a frenzied `dance of death' redolent of Genet in the complexity and potency of its images. It craves more physical intimacy than BAC provides, but colossal performances and taut direction nevertheless succeed in dragging the audience into the vortex of claustrophobia and desperation. Those seeking sheer, uncompromising theatre should look no further than this. JULIAN RICHARDS
THE TIMES, May 31, 1990
Hanging the President
Battersea Arts Centre
HOUSED in the former town hall and sporting a marble foyer that would give tone to a modest opera house, Battersea Arts Centre has recently become the sole London showplace of several touring companies, and a home to transfers of plays by companies that do not normally tour. The latest of them is Edinburgh's Traverse Theatre, bringing London the chance to see Michel Celeste's tough and excellent play, his first to be professionally produced and already the winner of two awards.
The setting is the condemned cell in a Pretoria jail where Stoffel and Nak, two white murderers due to be hanged next morning, are still deluding themselves that a reprieve is possible. The two outer thirds of the wide Battersea stage have been cut off by three breeze block walls, within which all the action is concentrated. The cell contains two metal bunks, a door, two identical plastic buckets (water in one, excrement in the other) and the two prisoners, wearing grubby shorts and singlets and, at the start, staring out at us with expressions of glazed contempt.
Both the murders have been racially motivated though neither of the victims is black. Stoffel (Stuart Hepburn) wrongly suspected his girl of sleeping with one and hacked her to death; Nak (Mark Faith) suspected a close friend of seducing his wife and shot him in the back, afterwards trying to incriminate black rioters. The two styles of murder sum up the character of the two men: Nak panicky,' devious and, in a crisis, submissive; Stoffel constantly aggressive
Celeste is Italian, though now resident in this country, and has never been to South Africa. I would not ordinarily remark on such personal details but in this case they are worthy of mention because of the quite exceptional verisimilitude of his dialogue. The sexual play-acting, brutal verbal and physical assault, and the disintegration into terror is charted with horrible reality. Ian Brown's direction, intense and explicit, elicits from his two main actors performances that pound against us, vital, athletic and horrifying convincing.
Celeste also shows fine playwriting skills in varying the tone and content of scenes within the play, and that, too, Brown's direction confidently brings out. The appearances by the Chief Warder (Bill Leadbitter), sexually longing for Stoffel's virile allure, credibly allow one or other of the prisoners to leave the cell, while the arrival of a third prisoner, the black Zwanini (Clint Dyer) sets the two foul whites against an altogether different kind of man, with an attitude to reprieve - and to his fellow prisoners - that I will not divulge.
Stoffel's play-acting includes the role of President P.W. Botha, with whom he obsessively identifies to grimly comic effect. The result is to make the condemned cell the equivalent of the state itself, brutal, repressive and doomed.
(Photo Richard Smith)
THE INDEPENDENT ON SUNDAY
THE SUNDAY REVIEW
"Denmark's a prison," says Hamlet, and in Hanging the President (Battersea Arts Centre) Michele Celeste picks up this cue by confining South Africa, in Pretoria's central jail. Here, on death row, two Afrikaner murderers are passing their last night on earth. How do such men await death? With renewed defiance, still haggling for perks, playing power games, having sex with each other and with the rat-like chief warder; and embarking on patriotic fantasy when the prison gang-leader, Stoffel, takes on the role of State President turning down their plea for a reprieve. It is loud, ugly, and horribly believable; until the arrival of a third condemned man a black political activist whose silent dignity enrages the two whites - tilts the piece into revengeful wish-fulfilment. In Ian Brown's production (transferred from the Edinburgh Traverse) it is as though Genet's Death Watch had fallen into the hands of the Mandela United Football Club; but the performances of Stuart Hepburn and Mark Faith are superb. IRVING WARDLE
WHAT'S ON, 6.6.90
Two Afrikaaners, Stoffel Legrand (Stuart Hepburn) and Nak' Van Der Merwe, (Mark Faith) are cellmates passing their last night'on Death Row in Pretoria's `Central jail. Each has been convicted of murder: in Stoffel's, case a `horrific' sex crime, in Nak's a shooting motivated, by jealousy. Stoffel an erstwhile gang president, has risen to, - pre-eminence as "the strongest man in Central, `marrying' the feebler , Nak who' becomes his `protege' and battered ersatz wife. Stoffel's physical authority has won him the lustful admiration of Central's Chief Warder (Bill Leadbitter), a professional sadist whose true pleasure, lies in yielding to his private masochism. As execution looms Nak clings harder to the forlorn hope of last-minute reprieve, while Stoffel retreats into a psychotic identification with another president - State President Botha. In the framework of this distorted triangle the three men play out a bizarre and revelatory sequence of power games. After `lights out' and with just hours to live, the condemned men find themselves
joined by a mysterious, mute third. They are outraged to discover that this eerie figure is a black `political', Zwanini (Clint Dyer), blood-stained and reeling from the recent attentions of Special Branch torturers. The two Afrikaaners, conditioned to abhor the idea of sharing anything with a `kaffir', face the prospect of sharing a kaffir's death on the gallows: for them this is literally the last word in degradation.
Michele Celeste has said that in Hanging the President he was "writing in a visceral, not in a logical way".
But for all the basic starkness of the dialogue a good deal of logic emerges from between its lines, not merely in relation to the psychology of apartheid, hut to the identically
brutalising nature of all forms of oppression, political and sexual. Stoffel in particular has relinquished his humanity as fully in his treatment of women as in his lifelong attitude to blacks. For him, as for Nak, blacks and women are the joint objects of hatred and of paranoid self-justification. In the eyes of the state the two men are criminal, not political offenders. In reality, says: Celeste they are both.
While it has a great deal to argue, Hanging the President is indeed as breathtakingly visceral as anything you'll see on the stage. Every bodily function of which men are capable is represented, censoring none of the sexual and scatological facts of prison life. In an inspired touch, Kathy Strachan's minimal set is surmounted by twin closed-circuit monitors which unblinkingly relay the acts on on stage, so that shares the invasive viewpoint of the "men behind the cameras" who observe the inmates night and day. The acting is painfully convincing, and Stuart Hepburn as Stoffel manages to defy sympathy and stilI project loads of crude charisma. lt isn't hard to see why Ian Brown's 1989 production of Hanging the President won a coveted First Fringe Award. If you want to see a scarifying portrait of oppression go and see `Hanging the President.
see also the