Verwoerd’s Assassin: a bloody tale of brilliant nuance

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Murder is a sexy topic, in any entertainment sphere. Murder carrying a factual trail of political blood and racial acrimony, moreso, but there’s always the threat, the possibility that the gory denouement or headline might drench the whole work in blood, thus compromising credibility and coating it with sensationalism. In the hands of Renos Spanoudes the story of the murder of Hendrik Verwoerd by Dimitri Tsafendas goes beyond story-telling. It’s a completely astonishing work in which Spanoudes magically becomes Tsafendas, and in doing so lends this much maligned historical figure the dignity and complexity he warrants.

On September 6, 1966, Tsafendas, then employed by Parliament in Cape Town, as a messenger, stabbed the then Prime Minister Verwoerd to death, whilst Parliament was in session. The gesture was the result of years of unbelonging and exile; a lifetime of being relentlessly pushed from pillar to post, with a lot of brutality and bullying thrust at him from all quarters, in between. And Verwoerd, as the author of the racist system which prevented him from a life of normalcy, was the target.

The illegitimate child of a South African Greek man and his Shangaan domestic maid, Tsafendas teetered irrevocably between racial classification. Not light-skinned enough to be considered white nor dark skinned enough to be considered black, he never knew for sure whether he was white or Coloured, and spent his early life in the impossible double bind presented by apartheid. He could not marry because he was considered white when he fell in love with a Coloured woman. He travelled out of the country, and was not permitted to return because of his being this curious anomaly.

This play, embracing everything from a contemplation of dust, to the drowning of Wolraad Woltemade to the voice of a tape worm, debuted in a slightly different form, over ten years ago. It rips into the intestines and heart of the issue, without pulling punches. It’s an essay on the horrors of apartheid brutality, conveyed with deft hands, in the directorial, writing and performance aspects of the story and represents an energised and self-critical but deeply intelligent collaboration.

Spanoudes is a completely wonderful performer, who takes Tsafendas, body and soul and allows him to soar with the kind of authenticity that keeps you completely magnetically transfixed. Neither a chronological account nor a contrived one, this is storytelling at its wisest: it opens to present a bloody and bruised Tsafendas in his jail cell, and expands and contracts around his past and present. In entirety it presents a tale of hardship and humiliation, but ultimately it is the kind of work that leaves your empowered and simmering with a sense of victory.

Yes, Tsafendas lived out his life in horror and sadness, having survived the pricks and kicks of a vindictive Afrikaans policing, and horrifying privations like being installed beneath the gallows, where he was constant aural witness to hangings, for instance, but the work is constructed less as an essay of injustice and more as a nuanced and well-paced paean to the historical figure himself, a man not unintelligent, but plagued by demons.

Featuring a relationship with dark transitions on stage, which cloaks the text in sinister allusions to other presences, be they hidden members of the police, out there to drench the prisoner in water or piss in his tea, or be they the voices in the elderly Greek’s head, ostensibly drawing from the tape worm from which he suffered chronically, this play offers a very satisfying give and take in how this performer winds his presence through the text and the character, creating a work so developed and wise that even the notoriously horrible space of the Amphitheatre falls into irrelevance.

Spanoudes, in a tour-de-force performance, at times reminiscent of Ron Perlman’s unforgettable monk Salvatore, in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Name of the Rose (1986) allows your heart and soul to leap and fall and leap again, with the challenges Tsafendas faced in his long and tortuous life. It’s not an easy play to watch; it’s a very important foray into an otherwise poorly explored history.

  • Verwoerd’s Assassin is written by Anton Krueger and based on the direction of Jose Domingos and Lynne Maree. It was performed by Renos Spanoudes, at the Amphitheatre, as part of this year’s Wits-hosted So Solo Festival.
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