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I See You

Published 4 March 2016

What’s it all about?

On his Royal Court debut, writer Mongiwekhaya takes a step back and takes stock, pitting the shockwaves of contemporary South Africa’s past against the glowing promise of its future.

At one end of the ideology spectrum you have freedom fighter-turned-police officer Buthelezi, a wearied and troubled middle-aged man witnessing the collapse of his marriage from the sheer weight of the trauma he suffered during the apartheid epoch. At the other: young law student Ben, a middle-class liberal belonging to a generation seemingly ignorant of the grisly history his Johannesburg birthplace is inherently steeped in, be that out of innocence or choice.

So when an initially harmless clash between the two escalates, the combination of Ben’s apparent naivety and Officer Buthelezi’s violent chip-on-shoulder sparks a prejudice-laden battle of ideologies. A bold, brutally honest and bruising reflection on a country still seeking unity in its cultural identity, I See You questions how South Africans can embrace the need to move on if they are to remain under the duress of paying homage to their modern history.

The message, as you might expect, digs a little deeper than forgive and forget. 

Who’s in it?

In this instance, star billing stems from the Director’s chair, where Hermione-to-be Noma Dumezweni makes an imposing directorial debut. The multi-talented actress tackles a complex story with assertive clarity, diligently masterminding the gradual descent of Ben and Buthelezi’s initial run-in towards something far more sinister, intense and, ultimately, meaningful.

In a cast of seven Court debutants, Desmond Dube dominates as Buthelezi in a performance of skilfully measured duality. His is a wounded anti-villain so clearly shaped by his tumultuous past that, when confronted with his own personal demons, he appears as terrified and confused as his prisoner Ben. Such internal conflict is masterfully portrayed by Dube, parading the volatile officer as a pitiful but hauntingly dangerous product of his time.

What should I look out for?

The pantsula dancing scene. Events could easily slide into humorous slapstick, but tenacious performances from across the cast invoke a violent grotesqueness that is tough to watch. It’s shocking how helpless Ben is here. Despite suffering only for his ancestry’s actions, it’s uncomfortably unclear how far his suffering will go.

Not so much a feature to look out for, but keep an ear out for the rich honesty of the writing, grounded with seamless integration of Afrikaans language. Mongiwekhaya fuels familiar themes of prejudice, politics and personal identity with a delightfully subverting voice, expressing both love and anguish for his home country. It’s refreshing, authentic, penetrative and potent, but never preachy, and offers crucial food for thought from a rare but accessible perspective.

In a nutshell?

A ferociously honest prejudice drama, I See You is lovingly penned, evocatively staged and intelligently performed. A powerhouse of a play that leaves you reeling.

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Will I like it?

Laugh-a-minute comedy it ain’t, but I See You is copiously challenging, intelligent and important. That’s not to say it treats itself too seriously – moments of comic relief punctuate the script, and provide welcome relief from the frequently agonising tension – but these never undermine the feeling that this is a piece of theatre with an emotional heart and soul borne from a place of harrowing, persistent, patriotic pain. It’s an exceptional story told from a unique perspective, and if you like your theatre intense, personal and stimulating, you’ll love it. Be sure to take a friend, or make one while you’re there; you’ll have plenty to discuss on your way home.

I See You plays at the Royal Court until 26 March. You can book tickets through the theatre’s website


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