FringeReview UK 2019
Directed by Vik Sivalingham, with set and costumes by Cecilia Troni, it’s lit by Tim Mascall and with sound design by Nicola Chang.
This a very different play from Gail Louw’s previous work at Jermyn Street only a little over two months back, the one-man Shackleton’s Carpenter. The Ice Cream Boys is a three-hander with ex-South African president Jacob Zuma in hospital for his prostate confronted by accident with a disenchanted former white comrade, Ronnie Kasrils with possible skin cancer; and unexpectedly, their nurse Thandi Dube. It’s 2019. Sometimes the men forget that.
Louw adventures in extremes of struggle, though she’s written very different works (like Being Brahms). This one seems steeped so idiomatically in ANC struggle and history, and so fluently interweaves it over 80 minutes, you might guess it Louw’s heritage. Up to a point. Louw didn’t accompany Shackleton to the south pole, but intricacies, betrayals and the sheer weight of struggle and how it distorts you are grippingly authentic. There’s a mighty reckoning in a little room. Though it never spills over into melodrama or seething hatred.
You’d not guess that from the opening where Zuma, played with edgy bonhomie and truculence by Andrew Francis, tells Bu Kenene’s Nurse Dube that she must move Jack Klaff’s Kasrils, whom he’s discovered is in the next room. She won’t and Kasrils arrives. In seconds they’re reminiscing and Zuma’s delighted after all.
Directed by Vik Sivalingham, Cecilia Troni’s hospital-room set throbs with an pristine whiteness, with a pot plant dashing colour stage left. The chairs, table, chess set allow the focal point to be circled round, despite the age of the characters. The two main protagonists are virtually never offstage – Klaff for a few seconds. Kenene more frequently. Troni’s responsible for the costumes too. It’s lit by Tim Mascall with sudden blood-red lurches to memory after the bleak neon; and with sound design by Nicola Chang, particularly strong again in harrowing moments of recall.
Throughout the encounter over a game of chess – never finished but emblematically held over – Kenene inhabits a variety of other characters in subdued red lighting: Eleanor, Kasrils’ dead wife; a Christian missionary; a complacent ANC official and Nelson Mandela himself with a shawl, urging compromise with neo-liberal investment and the West, to Kasrils’ disgust. Each were communists. Each have differently compromised their ancient reading of the Communist Manifesto together, though Kasrils still clings to it. Each edges through the characters’ shared memories to inform the present, and us.
Partly Zuma wants to recruit his old denouncer in a bid to return as president, endorsed by the man whom he has most to fear from. Kasrils was his chief of spies, Zuma reminds him. Klaff’s Kasrils mixes righteousness with a wry sense of his precarious status. He seems unillusioned, though edges towards virtue-signalling entitlement. Admittedly he spent his life in struggle and only latterly, government. But then he had a choice, Zuma reminds him.
Louw’s ability to allow the embattled Zuma rallies and straight volleys makes the encounter credible and more or less equal. You expect there might be some reveal to lay Kesrils morally low. Louw’s more cunning than that.
Kasrils didn’t endure ten years in Robin Island as did Zuma (the sound design’s evocative here). Francis fires off a mix of aggrieved warmth: Kasrils is a man he needs, who knows where the bodies are. Though both men edge to darkness, we’re never really subjected to either as monsters, though in one case it emerges. For instance Kasrils relates his darkest moment after brief singing in which all three of the characters come together. ‘You know our songs Thandi, even though it was from long before you were born’ Zuma marvels. ‘I used to sing them with my mother’ the nurse responds significantly.
It’s then that – as so often – Klaff’s wily Kasrils ambushes. He relates his darkest moment. It comes when he sprains his ankle – it still gives trouble – on a weapons border drop from Mozambique. He’s warmly cared for by Zuma’s family and overhears Zuma laughing ‘What can you expect of a stupid umlungu mampara.’ He knows it means ‘stupid white person’. Kasrils added hurt still: ‘You both laughed.’
If this is Kasrils’ moment of personal betrayal, it’s hardly momentous. It’s the political one that damages most – that encounter with Mandela. Louw hedges him about with grumpiness, but doesn’t land some killer reveal. It’s Zuma who’s next in the frame, as the accusation of rape unfolds and we get a surprisingly detailed witness.
This ramps up the climax where Louw’s adroitness is not in skewering Zuma but in shaming him beginning with a fresh action of his, credibly as ‘spear of the nation’ trying to kiss nurse Thandi. It’s a trigger to the most gripping part of this drama, exposing all Zuma’s sexual entitlement in a bleak rapacity that takes in a catalogue of pain.
But it’s not the final word. It’s 2019. Thandi wasn’t born when Apartheid ended. There’s things to say. And even then, the conclusion is suffused with much truth and perhaps some reconciliation.
This is a deeply satisfying play, unusual in its focus on post-Apartheid troubles and the relationship between black and white activists on the same side, and their failings. And a reminder of how it resonates – or fails to – now. Again, Jermyn Street adds to a string of first-rate productions where comparison with leading small theatres including NT’s Dorfman seems increasingly irrelevant. Jermyn Street is its own standard.