Return of the killer worm

On stage at London’s revamped Almeida Theatre a star-studded cast is acting out a story about love and politics, set in South Africa and revolving around the moment one spring day (‘September 6 ‘66. Hey — six six six! The number of the beast”) when Demetrios Tsafendas kills the architect of apartheid, prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd, in Parliament. He stabs him four times in front of MPs, a visiting party of schoolchildren, Mrs Betsie Verwoerd and Verwoerd’s own bodyguard: chest, neck, left lung, right lung.
He then drops the knife and is arrested on the spot.

Tsafendas, born 1918, died 1999, remains a shadowy, mysterious figure. At the time of the assassination, the deed was blamed on the prompting of a ‘dragon worm” or giant tapeworm — Tsafendas was declared mad, unfit to stand trial. This did not save him from prison. He was incarcerated in Pretoria Maximum Security, where he spent 28 years on death row, in a cell just below the crashing gallows. In 1993 he was moved to Sterkfontein hospital near Krugersdorp and, although free to leave, stayed there until his death five years later.

Tsafendas is the central figure in South African-born actor Antony Sher’s first play, ID, and is played by Sher himself.

‘I was in my last year of high school in Cape Town when the prime minister was assassinated,” says Sher in his introduction to the play. Years later, in 2000, he came across Dutch author Henk van Woerden’s book about the assassination, A Mouthful of Glass, and decided that this was the story he wanted to dramatise. He flew to Amsterdam to negotiate stage rights and began research into both Tsafendas and Verwoerd.

‘For [the play] to work as a drama,” says Sher, ‘it needed the other side of the story: Verwoerd. The two men were obsessed by the same thing — identity — though in very different ways; Tsafendas in a personal sense. Verwoerd on a national scale.”

The result is a play that is in turn moving and uncomfortably comic. It is both a story about identity, and a fine English murder whodunit, albeit a mystery where the culprit is known from the start. What Sher is looking for is motive: ‘Why did he do it?” asks the character Lintwurm. ‘Was he mad? Was he political? Working for the KGB, the CIA? Or was it because of the girl?”

The girl is Helen Daniels (played by Cleo Sylvestre), a coloured spinster Tsafendas met when he rented a room from her in Cape Town. Daniels is conservative, religious and appalled when it comes to light that Tsafendas is not, as she thought, a coloured man, but classified white. She calls the fledgling romance off. And the play hints that it is this rejection on top of a lifetime of displacement that eventually drives Tsafendas to murder.

The irony is that Tsafendas is not white. Born in Mozambique, he is the son of a Greek man and his coloured servant. As the story goes, when his father married, he was ashamed of his half-caste son and sent him to live with his grandmother in Egypt. He later returned, was sent to boarding school in South Africa, joined the Communist Party in 1936 and was deported in the same year. Years of drifting followed before he re-entered South Africa illegally in 1963.

The history is fascinating, but as Sher says, ‘the last thing I wanted to write was a history lesson”. Much of the drama centres on Tsafendas’s struggle with his inner demon. In the opening scene, in Sterkfontein hospital, he tells us ‘I had a worm once”. Enter Lintwurm, Tsafendas’s nemesis and constant companion, and our narrator: a giant tapeworm.

Lintwurm (Alex Fern) arguably upstages both Tsafendas and Verwoerd. Wearing a black shiny shirt and goggles, he goads Tsafendas to act, ‘for real”. Peculiarly, this character who symbolises the crumbling identity of madness is the one who comes across as the most knowing and reasonable, in a cynical kind of way.

He is not likeable, far from it. He mocks Tsafendas’s love for Daniels, reducing it to a yearning for ‘tits ‘n poes”. He has a lust for violence, is lewd and cruel and destructive. But in comparison, Tsafendas, and even Verwoerd, come across as bumbling, kindly, generally harmless if delusional souls. Lintwurm — tough and gritty — is more believable than the characters based on real people.

This is not necessarily a criticism. One of the surprises of the show is South African actor Marius Weyers’s Verwoerd. In the play, he is peculiarly benign. Even in his contempt for the black leaders he is setting up as statesmen in the Bantustans, he comes across as an overgrown child or pampered gentleman, giggling at his own witticisms, devastatingly blind to his own hypocrisy. If anything, he is reminiscent of English colonialists of old: bafflingly certain of his own superiority. ‘I have been put on this sweet Earth with a purpose, a gift from on high,” he tells his reflection in the bathroom mirror. ‘It is called duty. And the duty is to lead my people, die Volk. And nothing — nothing — will make me shirk my duty.”

Yet like Tsafendas, Verwoerd is actually an outsider. He was born in The Netherlands — and his liefling, Betsie (Jennifer Woodburne), is rumoured to have coloured blood. He shares other things with Tsafendas: poor sleeping habits, a propensity to talk to himself, an obsession with food (he scrunches down pickled herrings like popcorn). And a certain kind of madness.

After David Beresford Pratt fails to dispatch the prime minister with a .22 calibre handgun at the 1960 Rand Easter Show, Verwoerd discusses Pratt’s fate with a governmental psychologist. ‘I trained in psychology, doctor,” he says. ‘I know my madmen. This one shows clear signs of megalomania. He sees himself as a political prophet, a saviour. He thinks he knows what’s best for South Africa. What could be madder than that?”

Such moments of dark humour are common throughout the play. Moments after Verwoerd has been fatally stabbed, there is a farcical scene playing on South Africa’s obsession with rugby. It is, thankfully, very funny.

Sher seems determined not to lull his audience into a sense of complacent moral superiority by refusing to allow us to pity his characters. And he does this by making us — and the actors — laugh at the most inappropriate moments. A scene where the black gravedigger ends up dancing furiously on Verwoerd’s grave (inspired by Private Eye’s famous A Nation Mourns cover) is tempered by him chuckling at himself.

Sher’s own sympathy for Tsafendas is clear. As he has the government doctor explain: ‘He is, in the end, a coloured man who has suffered a lifetime of almost unimaginable isolation and dislocation, kicked from one country to another, and it all stems from an initial rejection by his own family because of his colour. And this same very displaced, very angry coloured man then ends up killing the [architect of apartheid].”

And Sher, himself Jewish and gay, obviously delights in Tsafendas’s often subversive speeches, not least this one: ‘One day we’ll all be bastards ... a continent of bastards. Because we mustn’t be fooled into calling ourselves Mozambicans there, or South Africans here, or whatever. We’re all just African bastards, Cape Town to Cairo!”

There may well be a touch of post-1994 rainbow nation glibness in this kind of speech. And there is a tendency to present the Afrikaans characters as thuggish or stupid (noticeably in the stage directions), that does not sit too well with the reconciliation now so woven into South African speech. Perhaps this is why Lintwurm — so typically South African — is so powerful. While Verwoerd and Tsafendas seem rooted in the past, Lintwurm’s streetwise cynicism reflects the mood of 2003 South Africa. And the play is all the more disturbing — and better — for it.

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