Language is all tangled up in history and identity, a thick linguistic rope wound tight around an ancestral flagpole. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, I See You considers what happens when that rope breaks and a language is lost, and asks whether it’s what you speak, rather than what you say, that defines who you are.
The play – the directorial debut of Noma Dumezweni, who’s set to play Hermione in the upcoming West End production of Harry Potter – follows Ben, a black South African law student forgetful of his mother tongue and a generation removed from the violent revolutions that shaped his country. When he’s arrested by a former freedom fighter turned police officer, Ben becomes the focus of the abusive sergeant’s litany of unresolved resentments. Officer Buthelezi exacts a cruel and personal revenge against this young icon of a new South Africa, this “man with one foot in Africa, the other in America and his privates cooling in the ocean.”
Buthelezi is a real bastard, given palpable menace by actor Desmond Dube. Performed in the teensy upstairs theatre of the Royal Court, his mad aggression makes the room feel uncomfortably claustrophobic. Other characters are more poorly fleshed out, chiefly Ben’s white friend Skinn, a brash young girl whose own dire circumstances are under-explored.
But I See You is a tense, rough-edged exploration of identity, race, language and violence that pulls no punches.