Although set in 1999, Simon Tengende’s play Discrit Zimbabwe (“Dispassionately Critical of Zimbabwe”) is undeniably topical, with its chief villain Robert Mugabe having been featured prominently on the news this very week.
Not, however, that Mugabe himself is depicted in this play, but rather one of the terrible effects of his regime, portrayed in microcosm. In particular, the play concerns his policy of “land distribution”, or land invasions as they were less euphemistically known, whereby (to quote the programme) “white farmers and their black workers were the victims” of forcible seizure of their farms.
In the play, multi-generational landowners Jeffrey and Anne Smith are being threatened with being run off their property by “a mob of so-called war veterans.” These threatening figures are led by an urbane, sinister young man named Tatonga, the son of one of the Smith’s foremen who has gone away to get an education at Oxford and returned, clad in Armani, to work for Mugabe’s government, supposedly on behalf of would-be indigenous farmers. Spouting a lot of rhetoric and scarcely-veiled threats, he has an axe to grind with the Smiths and is relishing the task of evicting them, coolly confident of his authority even when Jeffrey has a rifle levelled at him.
One of the script’s strengths is that there is no obviously-presented objective reality to the characters’ collective backstory, as Tatonga and the Smiths tell two sides of how things have been in the past. Although we aren’t really left in much doubt that those invading the farm are illegitimate aggressors, that isn’t to say that everything they claim about Jeff’s exploitation of his workers is necessarily false, as those workers who we do see don’t strongly confirm it either way. Nor are Jeff’s own assertions of his generosity and innocence to be believed automatically. It is always compelling when two characters each passionately insist that the other is lying, and you as the audience have to attempt to make up your own mind on the matter.
To tackle such weighty subject matter in a stripped-back production with a cast of six in the tiny La Mama theatre is a commendably bold undertaking. That being said, however, it is hard to know quite what to make of this play as a piece of drama in and of itself. For some, particularly those who are close to the subject matter, this may well be very moving. Alternatively, for viewers unfamiliar with the recent history of Zimbabwe it could provide an emotive introduction to some of the issues that have plagued this desperate nation. For those in between, or audiences simply seeking an engrossing work of theatre, there is a chance that Discrit Zimbabwe will leave you a little underwhelmed. In short, the play is very… well, short. Running only around 45 minutes, the play aims for high tension and absorbing characterisation but struggles to really reach these goals in the small amount of time allotted. This is not to say that it would necessarily have been better in an expanded form, merely that, as presented, the work seemed somewhat underdeveloped.
The acting was passable but nothing to write home about, with half the cast having very little to do and the remaining three struggling somewhat to carry the show. Ian Nott did a solid job as the besieged Jeffrey Smith at his wit’s end, but the most engaging player was Samir Malik as the chief antagonist Tatonga, delivering an intense and charismatic performance.
There isn’t much one can say that is really wrong with Discrit Zimbabwe, rather that there isn’t a great deal about it that commands a particular recommendation either. If the subject matter interests you, or you feel like a quick drop into the theatre, then it is worth a look.
La Mama presents
by Simon Tengende
Venue: La Mama, Carlton
Dates: June 11 - 29
Bookings: 9347 6142