/ 26 April 2024

Columnist Calland captures state capture for stage

Thebrothers©suzybernsteindsc 5808 Min
Theatre luminaries, David Dennis, Michael Richard, and Zane Meas lead the cast alongside Astrid Braaf, Ziaphora Dakile and Melissa Haiden. They are guided by The Market Theatre’s award-winning Artistic Director, Greg Homann, who is celebrated for his cutting-edge direction of new South African work. The production is designed by Lisa Younger with filmmaker Xolelwa ‘Ollie’ Nhlabatsi bringing a dynamic multi-media element to the production. Photo by Suzy Bernstein

Barrister for seven years at the London Bar before moving to South Africa in 1994 to work on its founding democratic election as an adviser to the ANC in the Western Cape; University of Cape Town law professor; adviser to the governments of Mali, Peru, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Jamaica; political analyst; columnist for the Mail & Guardian since 2001 and author. Richard Calland can now, at the age of 59, add “playwright” to his CV.

He is wearing a grey cap with the logo of his beloved Arsenal on it, and a matching sweater, during our Zoom call because Cape Town’s weather has gone into autumn mode.

“I always felt that maybe I had a play in me,” he says when I ask where the idea for the new Market Theatre production The Brothers, Number One and a Weekend Special comes from. 

It goes back to when he was growing up in London. His schoolteacher father was always prudent with money and never in debt. 

“But he basically spent every single penny of his disposable income on the arts, on culture. He was addicted to the theatre and to opera.

“It was his hobby and he was quite hedonistic in that sense. He really loved the pleasures of art and culture. And he would drag me along.”

Calland loved going to the theatre with his old man, even into teenagehood, with all its distractions. 

“But there were times when, at the opera on a Saturday night, I’d be like, ‘Can you please now die, so we can get home in time for Match of the Day?’ Because watching football was still a priority for me. But, in general, I really enjoyed the experience.”

The play tells the story of state capture, which started with the announcement of a new finance minister, one Des van Rooyen (the “Weekend Special” in the title, who was in office for a mere weekend) in late 2015. 

It tracks a two-year history of corruption involving The Brothers — the Guptas, an influential family with close ties to the South African government — and “Number One”, then president Jacob Zuma. 

The play opens on Friday 26 April, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of South Africa’s democracy when, for the first time, all the country’s people went to the polls on 27 April 1994.

When Calland started writing the play in 2019, the story in his head was the Bell Pottinger scandal that was exposed in 2016 and 2017. It followed Zuma’s appointment of Van Rooyen, a little-known backbencher, to one of the most powerful positions in government on 9 December 2015. It was earth-shattering.

“People were saying, ‘I think he’s an MP, isn’t he? Is he from the North West?’” Calland recalls in our interview. “They had literally never heard of this guy and he’s now been appointed as the minister of finance. That was incredible.”

He says that was a massive overreach on Zuma’s part. 

“I think his downfall can be tracked back to that moment. 

“Of course, as he began to fall, he got more desperate and he tried to do things. One of the things he did, through the Guptas, was to bring in [British communications company] Bell Pottinger to try and spin his way out of trouble and to mask what was going on with this — very clever, actually — campaign of misinformation about what was going on in the country.”

Calland was sitting at a little coffee shop in Berlin, Germany, around the corner from his son’s crèche. “And I just opened up my laptop and I started writing this play. 

“I had in my mind a vision that one half would be set in an office in the Union Buildings. And the other half would be set in an office at Bell Pottinger in London.

“And I could imagine the scene change between the two sets in my head. And I could imagine the main characters. 

“I just started writing and, to my great delight, it flowed. But it was, at that point, entirely a hobby. I mean, I was just having fun with it. 

“It really wasn’t with any expectation that it would go anywhere beyond my laptop.”

The Brothers, Number One and a Weekend Special could have taken the predictable route and featured the Guptas, Zuma and Van Rooyen as per the title — South Africa has enough fine actors to play those roles. 

But Calland’s play cleverly stars six characters metres away from these sources of power: “Uncle” could be based on Mac Maharaj who was Zuma’s official spokesperson; the slimy spindoctor Tim Bell and his sidekick “Virginia”, based on the powerful Bell Pottinger MD  Victoria Geoghegan; Zuma’s rogue legal adviser Michael Hulley; “The Journalist” — a thinly disguised Ranjeni Munusamy, who was embedded in the Zuma camp, and “Tiger Claws” — Phumzile van Damme, the opposition MP who carried the campaign against Bell Pottinger.

I went to watch a preview on Sunday afternoon. Under the Market Theatre’s artistic director, Greg Homann, actors David Dennis, Michael Richard and Zane Meas lead the cast, alongside Astrid Braaf, Ziaphora Dakile and Melissa Haiden, bring the high drama of the time to life on stage.

I ask Calland how much dramatic licence they used. 

“So, Tim Bell, I’d say probably 50% of his words are actual Tim Bell words. And mainly from Richard Poplak’s documentary Influence.

“Bell was amazing in that documentary. I guess he was sort of demob, de-life happy — he knew he was dying; he was close to the end, chain-smoking through the interview.

“And he was obviously just in a garrulous mood and he just talked and he didn’t hold back. And … so there were some great lines there and then the rest I just made up from my imagination as to what would fit for him.”

Calland says the other five characters are all fiction. 

“Obviously, they are in some respects composite characters from my own experience of politics.”

However, Calland insists the main character “Uncle” is not Maharaj “but it’s a Mac-like character with other figures from the ANC thrown into the mix”. 

“It’s an attempt … to personify all of the dilemmas, confusions and contradictions of the ANC into a character.”

He told Munusamy that “she’s sort of in the play, which made her laugh nervously”. The narrative arc of the “Journalist” character is that she is trying to redeem herself after she was “spat out” by the Zuma camp. “So, there is a similarity there.”

The Hulley-like character describes himself in the play as being more of a Quentin Tarantino type than a Shakespearian one: “Like Harvey Keitel, who’s doing the clean-up the business” in Pulp Fiction.

Calland attended a rehearsal early on. “Zane [Meas] plays the character almost as a comic figure as much as a menacing figure. It’s a lovely mixture of the two.”

The character “Virginia” is obviously Geoghegan, who was more than Bell’s sidekick, “actually probably in many ways a more important figure in the Bell Pottinger South Africa account”. 

“And that’s entirely fictionalised, even though it’s based on who that person was.

“So, to answer your straightforward question, I guess only about 20% of the script is drawn from actual words said and the rest is fiction.”

Homann helped novice Calland to whittle down the script. 

“One of the tussles I’ve had with Greg is that, in my experience, people in politics swear a lot. Often Greg, when he was reviewing the script, would cut quite a lot of the profanity.

“And he’d say, ‘You know, good news, we’ve managed to trim it by 2 000 words.’ I said, ‘Yeah, well, 1 000 of those were ‘fuck’.’ But it became a sort of a running joke between us.

“I think Greg is not only a really fine director but he’s a writer in his own experience and skills set. And I trust him.”

Calland has been writing a column for the Mail & Guardian for 23 years. I wonder what is more effective — a piece of analysis in the newspaper or a play at the Market Theatre.

“One might now hope that a piece of art can last longer in a way,” he replies. “The old cliche about today’s newspapers being tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapper, even with the internet, I think is largely true. 

“Columns come and go and they’re quickly forgotten.

“Art is different. This may upset people in different ways. Or it may engage people in different ways. Maybe it will stimulate thinking and thought. I wait to see, with great interest, how the reaction is.”

Calland is mostly a sunny-side-up kind of political observer. 

“The fact that Zuma was pushed out of power, that there has been some form of accountability and the Zondo Commission happened at all, and produced this compendium, this encyclopaedic analysis of what happened, is pretty extraordinary, actually.”

But South Africans forget quickly, probably because we are bombarded with scandal and shock.

“We’re moving on from it already. And maybe people are even bored of it: ‘Oh, God, Zuma, state capture. Don’t want to hear about that, read about that.’ And so, therefore, the only way that one can hope to penetrate that kind of tendency would be to make the point in a different way through drama or through art.

“That was my hope — that this play might capture, forgive the pun, some of that state capture stuff.”

We return to the person who nurtured Calland’s love for the theatre. Last Saturday was the first preview of The Brothers, Number One and a Weekend Special

Calland tells me it fell on his father’s birthday — he died in 2016. He would have turned 96.

“So, that was a coincidence, but a really nice one,” Calland says.

“Would he have been proud of you?” I ask him.

“I think he would have. I mean, he was always a bit confused by my career path. He was from that generation where you got educated, started a job and stuck with that job. And you stayed in one job, often one company, for your whole life. 

“So, he couldn’t really understand the whole portfolio career thing of jumping from one thing to another. He found that quite mystifying.

“He once said to me, ‘When are you going to get a proper job?’ And by then I was a professor of law at UCT. And I was like, ‘Well, Dad, do you not think that’s kind of reasonably proper?’”

Calland pauses. 

“I think he would be proud. I think he would be quite amazed. And he would be thrilled ….”

The Brothers, Number One and a Weekend Special runs until 12 May at the Market Theatre.