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I See You review at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court, London – ‘intelligent and gripping’

Desmond Dube in I See You at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs, Royal Court. Photo: Johan Persson

It’s been a remarkable few months for Noma Dumezweni. In November she stepped in at the last minute to replace Kim Cattrall in the Royal Court’s production of Linda and managed to deliver a supremely confident, role-owning performance. Earlier this year it was announced that she would play Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and now here she is making her directorial debut with a sure-footed, intelligent and gripping production of I See You – a new piece by South African writer Mongiwekhaya – which has the propulsive quality of a thriller, while at the same time providing a nuanced commentary on life post-apartheid.

Ben, a young law student, and Skinn, the girl he has just hooked up with, get pulled over by two policemen who suspect him of drinking and driving. One of the officers, Buthelezi, is tightly wound, his marriage collapsing and his dreams full of demons, and it only takes a few misplaced words for the situation to escalate, rapidly and terrifyingly.

Language is important in I See You, which was developed as part of a Royal Court new writing project in South Africa and is being co-produced with Johannesburg’s Market Theatre. South Africa is a country of many languages, eleven in all, and Mongiwekhaya makes it clear that language, history and identity are impossible to unknot from one another. “Do you know what happens when you lose your language?” Ben asks of his tormentor, “the world ceases to have shape.” He’s lost the language of his childhood and with it a piece of himself and his country’s past; Buthelezi, a one-time freedom fighter, is determined to make the boy remember.

Mongiwekhaya’s play uses Ben’s predicament as a needle with which to unpick the complexities of life in modern South Africa, not just the racial politics, but the linguistic, cultural and generational forces at work and the overlap between them. It does this with great clarity and skill, only occasionally does it feel didactic.

This is all placed within the frame of Skinn’s desperate quest to find Ben, the least convincing part of the play but an effective strategy for generating tension. Dumezweni’s production is taut as a guitar string, a piece of great control, twisting things tighter, applying pressure to the chest. The audience surround the stage on three sides, which adds to the intensity – we can see the sweat and spittle.

Dumezweni draws rich performances from her cast. Desmond Dube’s Buthelezi is an imposing figure in every sense, a man carrying something heavy around his neck, traumatised, unable to untether himself from the past, while Bayo Gbadamosi’s Ben shifts between being plausibly petrified and slightly superior in his attitude, while also conveying the pathos of being disconnected from your own country and history by an inability to communicate, islanded by language and its lack.

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Noma Dumezweni makes her directorial debut with an intelligent and gripping play about contemporary South Africa