You don’t have to be Hannibal Lecter to know that psychiatrists make good protagonists. From Moss Hart and Kurt Weill’s musical “Lady in the Dark” through Peter Shaffer’s “Equus” to Adam Arkin grilling Martin Sheen in episodes of “The West Wing,” dramatists have long used investigations into states of mind as a detective-style device to unravel hidden desires, motives and even entire plots. What makes Fraser Grace’s “Breakfast With Mugabe” so interesting an addition to the genre is its political angle.
Set during the run-up to the disputed 2002 election that consolidated despotic President Robert Mugabe’s control of Zimbabwe, the play takes psychiatric investigation a stage further. The white psychiatrist Peric (David Rintoul) has as much of an agenda as his patient. In a country whose white landowners are being systematically stripped of their livelihoods — and, in many cases, their lives — Peric is a landowner who, we gradually realize, is determined to use his position for his own ends.
He has been called in to rid Mugabe of painful visions. The president is frightened of his own shadow — he believes he is being stalked by an ngozi, the malevolent ghost of a long-dead comrade. The spirit in question — whom we never see — is that of Gen. Josiah Tongogara, the man tipped to be the country’s first leader after independence but who died in an accident shortly before the 1980 election.
Such is Mugabe’s paranoia that his wife, Grace, and his children have been confined to quarters in the State House in Harare, and she’s none too happy about it. In the opening scene, Noma Dumezweni’s imperious, immaculately dressed Grace ricochets between using her low, powerful voice to assert her dangerously high status, and an increasingly fevered need for escape. Her sense of being scandalized at not being allowed out — “Not even for shopping” — does a great deal to enrich this canvas of extreme privilege and power.
The atmosphere hardens considerably with the arrival of Joseph Mydell’s superbly realized Mugabe. Fresh from his amusingly languorous, campily long-suffering Jaques in the RSC’s “As You Like It,” Mydell transforms himself. He even manages to act shorter than his 6-foot plus frame usually suggests by affecting a slight stoop. Yet far from making him look weaker, his intense physicalization gives Mugabe a pent-up fury that stokes him up into a seriously commanding presence.
The meat of the play is in the ensuing dialogues between doctor and patient. Neither is happy in his role but each needs the professional relationship to work.
In Antony Sher’s production — his debut as director — the two men battle it out, with Peric jockeying for position with his president. A physical match for Mydell’s Mugabe, Rintoul’s canny psychiatrist teases out discussions about Zimbabwe’s colonial past as Rhodesia, through the beginnings of independence and Mugabe’s personal ascendancy following his release from 11 years’ imprisonment under white leader Ian Smith.
Yet while Fraser Grace’s handling of history is both deft and nicely devoid of dully over-explanatory information, committed and passionate debate takes the place of drama until the last 20 minutes or so. The problem is exacerbated by Sher’s overemphatic direction of his strong cast.
Sher is so determined to fire up the angry exchange of ideas that detail is drowned out. The performers grow too fierce and loud, as if playing a far bigger auditorium. Arguments race by so fast that it becomes hard to engage with the material. This is neither a play nor a production that is confident of the power of things unsaid.
The playwright is alive to the conscious absurdity of the scenario. He offsets the thoroughly dangerous tussle of egos with humor as in Mugabe’s droll observation, “I have been informed that I will not live forever.” In the present, however, his autocratic power is revealed as boundless. In the lopsided succession of terse final scenes — there to prove, slightly melodramatically, the horrific consequences of Peric’s covert actions and his arrogant underestimation of the president — Mugabe unleashes a vivid display of vicious power.
The play never entirely rids itself of contrivance. Nonetheless, without exonerating Mugabe’s reign of terror, Grace reiterates the injustices of colonial rule, effectively undercutting the audience’s expected liberal position. And the climatic presidential address to a huge political rally, simply evoked via echo effects on a public address system, is genuinely unnerving. The writing’s cumulative effect and Mydell’s exultant fervor become properly morally complicated to watch and undeniably chilling.