Breakfast with Mugabe

Fraser Grace
Ustinov, Theatre Royal, Bath
(2008)

The Ustinov makes a welcome return with its own production of Fraser Grace's fascinating study of a series of breakfast meetings in 2001 between President Mugabe of Zimbabwe (Joseph Marcell), and his psychiatrist, Andrew Peric (Miles Anderson).

Grace found the kernel of the story in what he described as journalistic "tittle-tattle": a report in The Times in October 2001 which claimed Mugabe was holed up with his wife and family, terrified to leave the State House because he believed himself haunted by a 'Ngozi': the vengeful spirit of long-dead comrade, Josiah Tongogara.

The play which then evolved is a fascinating look at the nature of power and the complex legacy of colonial oppression in Africa.

This is a flawless, water-tight cast. Joseph Marcell is a spectacular Mugabe: small of stature yet perfectly inhabiting that vast and ruthless need to assert his authority, and, one senses, possessed of an increasingly precarious rationality. The nature of a Ngozi haunting, according to the belief system of the Shona people of Zimbabwe, is something akin to possession. Its casualties gradually fall victim to acute paranoia and become hopelessly deaf to rational advice.

Marcell buries this turmoil behind a still, measured characterisation. Ethnicity and the issue of power is at the heart of his turmoil, so that, as his white doctor insists on a traditional doctor-patient relationship, one in which the doctor calls the shots (and calls him 'Robert'), Marcell brilliantly reveals Mugabe's struggle to accept this uncomfortable role-reversal and his embarks upon his psychological battle to "control the controller".

Mugabe is fascinated by what he calls the "anachronism" of this colonial throw-back: that this white man is still able to assert himself in a black environment. Consequently, Marcell's Mugabe arcs from resistance, to acquiescence, to a harrowing and revengeful final assertion of his power.

Marcell's final address is magnificent; having worked through Mugabe's personal tragedies, his ruthless disregard for western democracy and his tyrannical treatment of white farmers is seen to be firmly rooted in its historical and cultural context. Marcell captures the potent and seductive oratory of the man over this once-oppressed nation.

Falling victim to Mugabe's paranoia is his wife, Grace. Andi Osho gives a beautifully crafted performance: graceful, commanding and vulnerable. Her presidential sense of superiority over the doctor is effortlessly superseded by a barely concealed vulnerability in the presence of her husband.

Miles Anderson is a compelling and courageous Dr Peric, enduring his enforced encounters with this intimidating President, and all the while battling to maintain a professional composure in the face of considerable and palpable tension. When in a quiet moment, he pulls out a tobacco leaf from his family farm, Anderson also leaves us in no doubt of Peric's love for the land which three generations of his family have called home.

Nicholas Bailey is a quietly intimidating CIO agent, Gabriel. His business, we are told, is to "know everything", and from the outset we are in no doubt that Gabriel is a dangerous presence. But Bailey subtly lets us in on his character's humanity, so that when the time comes for him to finally assert his power over the doctor, it is all the more chilling.

Paul Robinson's assured direction brings this impeccable cast together to form a potent and deeply affecting ensemble.

"Breakfast With Mugabe" runs at the Ustinov until March 22nd

Allison Vale