20 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 63

On love and death

Lloyd Evans

Hammerklavier Jennyn Street Theatre ID Almeida The Illustrious Corpse Soho Theativ

Herje's a prediction. Yasmina Reza's ammerklavier isn't going to break any box-office records. The author of Art has written a tender, lyrical novel about love, grief, ageing and memory. This is a slight but highly memorable adaptation. Susie Lindeman, an actress so petite that she might have been born through a gap in the floorboards, has just the right mixture of frailty and passion for the role.

Antony Sher's first play, ID, is stronger on spectacle than on psychology. It concerns the death of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, who was murdered in 1966 by a racially confused drifter, Demetrios Tsafendas. The story is almost incredible. Tsafendas was born in South Africa of a Cretan businessman and a black housemaid. For some reason he was classified as white. He was brought up in Mozambique, Egypt and Greece, and after spells in Europe he returned to South Africa and fell in love with a black gospelsinger. To make his overtures more acceptable to her, he applied to be reassigned as 'coloured'. The romance failed and Tsafendas took a job as a porter in the South African Parliament. One morning he armed himself with two knives and stuck one of them into Venvoerd's chest. He later claimed to have been acting on instructions from a tapeworm in his stomach.

From these weird materials, Sher builds his drama. Much of it succeeds. He plays Tsafendas as an amiably bumbling simpleton. To make the tapeworm into a character is a bold and effective step. To double him as the narrator seems hazardous but works well. What lets the production down is the decision to dress him as a sort of gay dubber from about 1985 and to sprinkle his part with naughty swear-words.

Verwoerd is the most compelling character. In dictatorship drama, as Schindler's List made clear, the oppressors are more interesting than the oppressed. They have freedom of action and a sense of responsibility to their consciences. Verwoerd's wicked soundbite embraces both the nature of the problem and his despicable solution. 'Don't educate the native and you have a savage. Educate him and you have a headache. Halfeducate him and you have a servant.'

Inevitably a play about apartheid will lack any ideological surprises, and as I trooped into the Almeida with my fellow Islington liberals my mind was made up in advance. I would shudder and hiss at Verwoerd and his gang and I would cheer on his assassin with a happy heart. So it turned out. An evening of exquisite egalitarianism was marred only by the programme notes, where an advertisement inviting me to become a Friend of the Company included a polite demand that I reveal my racial origins by choosing from one (or more) of ten ethnic sub-groups. Thus the Almeida maintains its reputation as London's most discriminating theatre.

Tariq Ali has been a busy boy lately. Not content with his highly successful campaign to stop the war, he's written a play, The Illustrious Corpse. Ali is a witty and talented speaker. Last November I saw him get a huge laugh at an anti-war protest with this: 'What is it about Tony Blair that makes him come alive when people are about to die?' His attempt at full-length satire is disappointingly thin. The Labour home secretary has been murdered by his wife. A bumbling chief constable is sent to investigate and their interview provides the backdrop for a series of platitudes, clichés, preachy disquisitions and jokes about the prostate gland. Best gag of the night: husband had a pubic-wig fetish. Wife: 'They're very popular in New Labour. The prime minister wears one on his head.' The acting towers above the script. Kirstin Milward brings warmth and humour to her thankless role as a ranting Leftie. Russell Dixon is superbly ludicrous as the overpromoted bobby with the parade-ground manner. At one moment they hovered close to seduction and if you screwed up your eyes you could have imagined you were watching Julia Roberts snogging Captain Mainwaring.

What's fascinating about this play is its strategic intention. It's part of the Kill Blair campaign. The target audience is therefore not Tory voters — who would find it as interesting as a pavement squabble between beery tarts — but those carping Labour cohorts whose battle-cry now and forever more is 'Opposition at any price'. If you want Blair out, be of good cheer. The impotent, outraged Left are on your side, and when it comes to defeat, their dearest aim, they have a spectacular record of success.