Breakfast With Mugabe

Monday, 08 May, 2006

Originally part of the RSC's New Work festival and first performed in Stratford at the Swan Theatre and subsequently at the Soho Theatre in London, 'Breakfast With Mugabe' now gets an additional airing at the Duchess Theatre. So, if you missed it the first time round, here's another chance to get under the skin of the infamous executive president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe.

Fraser Grace admits that he 'stole' the story for his play from a newspaper report in 2001 which alleged that Mugabe was having psychiatric treatment. Apparently, Mugabe was being tormented by an ngozi - a bitter spirit - and sought help from a white psychiatrist. Whatever the truth of the report, Grace's play certainly provides an unusual situation through which to examine a man who many Europeans at least regard simply as a monster. But since we have no transcripts of the meetings between Mugabe and his white doctor, Grace's piece boils down to a kind of biography that gives something of an insight into what makes this despot tick.

There can't be many who are still unaware of the horrific policies being pursued by Mugabe in Zimbabwe. A once thriving economy is now largely in tatters. Political corruption is rife, and large numbers of Zimbabweans have suffered and died. And as orchestrator of his country's demise, Mugabe himself appears the archetypal African dictator.

The play opens with white psychiatrist and landowner, Andrew Peric waiting in the State House in Harare to meet his prospective patient. First on the scene, though, is Grace Mugabe, the president's elegant and intelligent wife (ably played by Noma Dumezweni). She's terrified and wants Peric to persuade Mugabe to let her and her children go. She tells Peric that the president is 'frightened of his own shadow' and that she's not been outside the palace in some time, 'not even for shopping'. Forty years his junior, Grace was first Mugabe's secretary and had children with him before his first wife died. But it's not only Grace who wants something from the president. As the play proceeds, we learn that Dr Peric has more on his mind than his patients. He has a farm which is being occupied by squatters and is looking to the president for help. Although he gets it in the end, it's not without significant and harrowing cost.

When Mugabe first appears on stage, he asks Peric to change his tie, and although Peric protests, it's immediately obvious who's in charge here and that it is impossible to resist the will and wiles of this president. Joseph Mydell as Mugabe has an uncanny resemblance to the Zimbabwean president, and has effectively captured his mannerisms and demeanour. And in a later scene, shows that he has also captured Mugabe's rabble-rousing speech-making in which he seems incapable of avoiding references to colonialism, haranguing the UK government - Tony Blair in particular - and the BBC: 'The Blair Broadcasting Organisation' as Mugabe calls it.

Anthony Sher makes his directorial début with 'Breakfast With Mugabe' and it's hard to fault his efforts or those of this tightly-knit, convincing cast. He's made excellent use of some haunting, melancholic music and singing by Chartwell Dutiro which starts and ends this short, but intense, political drama. However, the pace of the play is fast and the quick-fire exchanges, particularly between Peric and Mugabe, involve considerable background detail that is sometimes difficult to follow and digest.

With his Hitler-like moustache and formidable speechifying, Mugabe may seem like the epitome of a maniacal and terrifying despot. But Grace's portrait defines a highly intelligent, if not intellectual man, who's incarceration at the hands of the Smith regime at least to some extent explains his deep bitterness and steadfast resolve to prevent Europeans from 'making rich pickings in Africa'. But Grace's play makes no excuse for Mugabe's policies – rather, it's trying to 'humanise' the man so that we don't dismiss him as inconsequential or irrelevant.

At the end of this play, though, one is left with an immense feeling of hopeless despair that the world is passively looking on, seemingly doing little or nothing, whilst Zimbabwe inevitably disintegrates, for as Grace Mugabe poignantly says, “Goodness in Zimbabwe is too rare”.

(Peter Brown)

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