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A TIME TO DIE - REVIEW (article first published : 1999-10-8)

Well-known actor, director, broadcaster and scriptwriter Brian O’Shaughnessy has taken a new look at the story of Harry “Breaker” Morant in his play A Time to Die which forms one of the highlights of the centenary of the Anglo Boer War this month. The play, which premiered at KwaSuka Theatre earlier this week runs until October 23 and looks at the events surrounding the controversial trial and subsequent execution of outspoken Australian-based British soldier Breaker Morant and his friend Peter Handcock.

It is important to know a little about the story, so here is the scenario in brief. The time is the Anglo-Boer War. Harry “Breaker” Morant has been seconded from the Australian forces to the Bushveld Carbineers. This special force, disbanded after a year, comprised mostly Australians operating in the remote areas of the Transvaal and had the reputation of being disorderly, looting, drunken and wild. Morant, along with fellow Australian lieutenants Peter Handcock, George Witton and Ivor Summers were court-martialled by the British during the war on charges of murdering Boer prisoners-of-war and, in particular, a German missionary named Jacob Hesse.

Morant and Handcock were found guilty of murder and subsequently executed. Today there is still debate as to whether Morant was a liar, thief and murderer or a pawn in a complex political power game. The story has become something of a legend, partly because accurate information of the trial has not been made available and the sketchy details have given rise to conjecture over the intervening years.

The setting is, to quote from the play, that “No man’s land between life and death where all is made known.” After the shattering noise of the firing squad which claimed Handcock first, Morant finds himself able to speak, move and think. To begin with, the only other person around is a black gravedigger who is most concerned that No 2 body (No.1 was Handcock) won’t get into his allotted grave and he only gets paid in full once both graves are “occupied”. As the play progresses, Morant meets those he has killed and in death they communicate in a way they would never have done in life. It’s an interesting concept and becomes more fascinating as the play unfolds and the audience becomes either spectators for the execution or onlookers at the re-enactment of the court martial, with the feared “members of the press” lurking at the back of the theatre.

The play marks a welcome return to the Durban stage of two highly experienced and talented actors. Brian O-Shaughnessy, who has written and directed the play, also plays the part of Jacob Hesse, portraying him as a dark sombre figure who is tortured by the fact that he was unable to confess an adulterous sin before he was killed. Don Ridgway strides off with the acting honours with his masterly portrayal of the cane wielding, calf-slapping Brigadier Doyle, who hides a sharp intellect beneath his pompous self-important buffoonery.

Ben Voss puts in a strong and sustained performance as Morant although his lack of vocal training puts him at a major disadvantage in the company of seasoned veterans O’Shaughnessy and Ridgway. There was a particularly moving-scene where he describes his gentling of a wild horse. It is a pity that we have seen John van de Ruit (nicely underplaying the Afrikaner Hendrik Visser) and Ben Voss so recently in the same kind of victor/victim relationship in War Cry which makes it difficult to make a truly objective observation of either performance.

Dominic Fundam is fast proving himself one of Durban’s actors of note. He puts in an amusing and honest performance as the frustrated gravedigger Mr Angazi (so-called because his normal response is the Zulu equivalent of “I don’t know”) who gets roped in to fill one of the roles at the court martial. And in his final commanding scene, his is the one voice that speaks reason as he accuses not only Morant of being guilty but the whole British army in terms of their prisoner of war policy.

A Time to Die should provided added fuel to the debate as to whether Morant was innocent or guilty. As you leave the theatre, you won’t be sure yourself.

There are shows every night (except Mondays) at 19h00 with matinee shows at 14h00 on October 15, 19 and 20. Shows on October 17 and 31 are at 18h00. There will be a performance at Michaelhouse on October 11.Booking is at Computicket.

A Time to Die then tours from November 1 to 13 with performances at Hilton College Theatre (November 4), Clifton School at Nottingham Road (November 5), Vryheid (November 9 – check date), Ladysmith (November 12) and the Hexagon Theatre in Pietermaritzburg (November 13). Tickets for these venues at the door.


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