A bitter cop resolves to teach a flash young man a lesson in this gripping South African thriller
When it was announced a while back that respected actor Noma Dumezweni would be directing a new South African play at the Royal Court in March, nobody would have guessed that helming Mongiwekhaya’s ‘I See You’ would be the cherry on top of pretty much the most remarkable six months any actor could dare imagine in their most hubristic dreams.
First, she stepped into the lead role of the Royal Court’s epic ‘Linda’ to great acclaim at no notice after Kim Cattrall dropped out in the final week of rehearsals. Then the entire internet blew up after it was announced that she’d be playing Hermione Granger in the ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’, essentially the biggest West End show of all time.
Even the very fact she can fit ‘I See You’ in between these projects suggests the Olivier-winner is on a roll at the moment, and it’s no great surprise that she rises to the challenge of ‘I See You’ effortlessly. She’s no auteur but she directs a fine cast with a taut, thriller-ish minimalism that keeps it gripping in spite of slightly undernourished writing.
Ben (Bayo Gbadamosi) is a young black South African who has grown up in America after his parents fled apartheid. Now a law student in Johannesburg, he speaks only English, having forgotten the Xhosa of his youth. Stood up by a date, he hooks up wth resourceful white girl Skinn (Jordan Baker). The two are just about to get down to business when they have the misfortune of being pulled over by embittered cop Buthelezi (Desmond Dube). A traumatised ex-freedom fighter going through a messy divorce, he’s incensed by happy, hopeful young Ben, and resolves to teach him a lesson.
The problem with Mongiwekhaya’s short play is that it doesn’t really flesh out Buthelezi enough for us to empathise – I get he’d had a complicated life, but to this pampered Westerner he mostly came across as a sadist. It’s also a touch formulaic, not least in Skinn’s textbook Manic Pixie Dream Girl character. But in some ways its faults are its strengths: it’s pared back, exciting and easy to follow, with kinetic dialogue balletically shifting through South Africa’s kaleidoscope of languages. I wonder if Mongiwekhaya might have a bigger future in film, given the chance, but I think he can be pretty happy to have been a part of Dumezweni’s magical year