Rewriting history

Theatre - A paranoid dictator's imagined nightmares fail to convince, writes Michael Portillo

<

"As to the rumours of my retirement, I am not retiring yet." This defiant assertion, which might have issued from the Downing Street bunker in recent days, raises a titter of recognition from the audience at Breakfast With Mugabe. The playwright Fraser Grace puts the words into the mouth of the Zimbabwean president back in 2001. Five years later, Robert Mugabe is still in office. Surely our own leader, accomplished escapologist that he is, cannot cheat political death for so long. So, a little mirth is in order.

Merriment must have been in short supply in Zimbabwe during these past five years. Grace employs a fiction to illustrate the sufferings of that oppressed people. Just as Peter Shaffer created his haunting Equus out of a news report about a boy who blinded a horse, so Grace conjures his intriguing plot from a single press cutting. A British newspaper stated that Mugabe, troubled by a bitter spirit from beyond the grave, had turned to a white psychiatrist for help.

On the face of it, the doctor is not intimidated by the assignment. He refuses to discuss the case with the president's wife despite her cajoling, which ranges from dictatorial to seductive. He insists that the president meet him in private, give him unabbreviated sessions that begin on time, call him doctor while he calls his patient Robert, and open his heart about sensitive events in his family and political history. But the psychiatrist is putting on a brave face. Left alone, he trembles at the risks involved in dealing with a paranoid dictator who ends lives capriciously.

This doctor has practised among the black population of Harare, mixing his expertise in white psychiatry with a sympathetic understanding of Shona. Living with a black woman, a former freedom fighter seriously wounded during the liberation struggle, the psychiatrist has excellent credentials as a colour-blind practitioner, but he also has the experience to comprehend how brutal the comrades can be. The president soon demonstrates his volatility by insisting that the doctor put on a tie that conforms to the colours worn by his staff. The psychiatrist will learn that he has good reason to be afraid of the tyrant.

Seeing actors playing politicians should make us wary. Such faction is in fashion, and David Hare and Richard Norton-Taylor have made an industry of it. But Breakfast With Mugabe is more of a fantasy than Stuff Happens or Bloody Sunday. British audiences will also find it hard to judge whether it is right to represent Mugabe as unhinged.

Grace identifies the ghost - or ngozi - as Josiah Tongogara, the military leader of the Zanla guerrillas, and implies that Mugabe had him liquidated to eliminate a challenger.

Leaving aside the ethical questions involved in such an imaginative drama-tisation of recent history, Grace has produced a thought-provoking and entertaining piece. It is at its best when the president and psychiatrist lock horns. The director, Antony Sher, is wise to take the dialogue at breakneck speed. The effect is to hold our attention fully even as we delve into the minutiae of the historic rivalries within the Zanu-PF party.

David Rintoul as the psychiatrist begins the evening sounding as clipped as Ian Smith. He looks and sounds colonial, even if his CV tells a different story. This is a gritty performance that represents well the veneer of a professional who is used to being obeyed, while beneath it lurks the terror of a vulnerable citizen who understands the murderous potential of a criminally insane patient.

Joseph Mydell has a harder task than Rintoul, but his take-off of Mugabe is highly successful. He berates us as we would expect. He strikes authentic poses. We can well believe that Mugabe would intimidate the white medic on first meeting with just such a menacing stare. But the performance is strangely lacking in political authority. The necessary weightiness is absent.

The scenes with Mugabe's second wife are less convincingly written than those be-tween the men. But Noma Dumezweni is hypnotic as the flirtatious first lady, literally dazzling in three gloriously colourful costumes. She is constantly in motion, her limbs repeatedly rearranging themselves in lovely coils on the presidential sofa. Here is a woman who owes her supreme position to being good in bed. Reaching the summit of power has neither assuaged her greed nor improved her morals.

Sadly, the play is riddled with implausibility. Why would a politically savvy psychiatrist risk everything by bullying the president for confessions? Would anyone in the profession accuse a patient of driving his first wife to distraction through his infidelity, or of bumping off his opponents, especially when the patient is a vindictive dictator? Grace, and his play, leave these critical questions unanswered.

Booking to 27 May on 020 7494 5075