Review: Death of a Colonialist

While it’s really difficult remembering everything I thought about the last three things I saw at the festival, I think I must try and write bout them; after all, that’s why I went in the first place. From the comfort of my own bed, in my own home though, things do look a little different.

The first of the last three shows I saw was Death of a Colonialist. This was a Market Theatre production directed by Craig Friemond and script by Greg Latter. I had very high expectations for this show; my gorgeous sister-in-law had highly recommended it after seeing it in Jozi. In fact, I even stayed at the fest an extra day to include the possibility of seeing it.

This is a ‘straight’ play in two acts, with an interval in between. It’s about a white school teacher in Grahamstown, his wife who has cancer, and their reunion with their two grown children who come back to visit from Canada and Australia. It stars Jamie Bartlett, and Shirley Johnston, Carl Beukes and Ashleigh Harvey play his satellites.

There is no doubt that the issues facing white South Africans are thoroughly (and sometimes poignantly) churned through the wheel of this play. Crime, education, fitting in, dealing with the guilt of the past, migration, belonging, being by-passed. A passionate history of the Eastern Cape, with a (for an old white guy) passionate and obsessive leaning to Xhosa sympathies, is the crux of the star character’s being misunderstood, by his family and the school.

My reaction to the play is one of ambivalence. While there were many moments of genuinely moving stuff and powerful ‘truth’ moments too, I found the watching the play challenging and problematic. Here’s why. I think I like the bulk of the script, but immediately saw the challenges that it presented in staging. I know that Jamie Bartlett is a powerhouse performer, but here he felt too big for the role, and certainly for everyone else on stage. (Can I confess to it feeling like the Jamie Bartlett Show?) Yes, his performance was intense and magnetic, but it was also in another play. His most successful moments were when he was on his own, in front of us, his class, where he could be cock o’ the roost. His character had absolutely everything; a ball grabbing habit when he was excited, a funny walk, a cough, sniffing, weird little neck jerks, a voice thing, a cutesy leg thing when he kissed his wife, weird jerky hand things, and a powerfully emotional moving belly. My sense is was that it was just too much.

The super-naturalism of the others was eclipsed and annexed by the Jamie Bartlett show. It felt a bit unfair really, like we needed to care about them less, and this can’t be true, especially since the mom had cancer. I enjoy watching Shirley Johnson. She is a subtle, quietly natural performer, who didn’t stand a chance here. Just saying. So, I’m not sure if the issue is a casting one (in truth, having seen Jamie in the role I can’t really imagine anyone else doing it) since I am unsure about what serves the play. Usually I love Craig’s choices; here I was confused. The two others felt like moaning stage furniture.

I wasn’t convinced. — Megan Furniss


  • Ntombi Tshabalala

    This definetly a show to watch no matter how many times u watch it bt nje you must just watch very thought provoking play it keeps you on a look out of wanting to see more.

  • Ziphilele Moyake

    I watched the show thrice – Brilliant performance. Although i”d also have to agree that it did feel like a Jamie Bartlett show.