Theatre review: A Human Being Died that Night

Among the secret service personnel working for the apartheid government, no one used the word “kill”. Instead people were “dealt with” or “taken for a drive”. Such linguistic sleights of hand are steadfastly avoided in A Human Being Died That Night, a taut, brilliantly acted play that looks with a scientific eye at the politics and psychology of forgiveness and guilt.

The entire play is made up of conversations between Truth and Reconciliation Commission psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Eugene de Kock, a notorious South African police colonel dubbed “Prime Evil” following the fall of the apartheid government. These conversations took place in prison, while de Kock was serving his 212 years for crimes against humanity.

Although genuinely contrite, de Kock resents the way the TRC – the restorative justice body assembled in South Africa to ease the transition out of apartheid – has allowed many of his former colleagues to escape punishment while he is forced to stew in jail.

Through Gobodo-Madikizela’s psychological perspective we’re invited to see the reality behind the “evil” label. The apartheid government was maniacally paranoid and went to extreme lengths to ensure survival. That these included brainwashing and the encouragement of violent behaviour among its armed forces gives credence to de Kock’s claim that, to some extent, he was a “cog in a large machine”.

That’s not to excuse what he did. On the contrary, Gobodo-Madikizela reminds us that judgment is a necessary stage in the complex process of forgiveness; failing to judge someone for doing evil is to deny that person their humanity.

Matthew Marsh and Noma Dumezweni perform a script brilliantly adapted from Gobodo-Madikizela’s book by Nicholas Wright. Marsh is miraculously expressive while impaired by chains, while Dumezweni captures brilliantly the profound ambivalence felt by Gobodo-Madikizela toward her repentant interviewee.