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When a man is tested to his limits

Barry Collins's The Judgement shatters familiar concepts and easy categories to smithereens

The invitation to Rehaan Engineer's performance of Barry Collins's The Judgement at The Park Hotel last Saturday promised "a pairing of the finest theatre with the finest wines". Fortunately, the two did not share the same time and space, as often happens when local hotels host so-called "dinner theatre" sessions. It would have been down right obscene to indulge the senses while listening to the searing account of a soldier being tried for cannibalism. To nibble at cheese cubes and savour glasses of Shiraz and Chardonnay while he described how he and his brothers in arms ate human flesh and drank blood collected in bags of skin.

The performance was in a small, closed room with all the lights on. The actor stood on a slightly raised, well-worn, wooden platform with fading, flaking green paint. Exposed in the naked light, he addressed the audience just as he might have faced the judges who would try him, and spoke "in defence of my guilt, not innocence" for two-and-a-half hours. Captain Andrei Vukhov, stripped of his uniform and dressed in hospital clothes (white sleeveless vest and pyjamas) described "the facts of the case" after he had brought forth his "silent witness" — the cleaned and sharpened thighbone of his superior officer, Colonel Lubyenko.

During World War II, the German Army had locked up and abandoned seven Soviet officers in the cellar of a monastery in Poland without food or water. The two who survived by devouring their companions were found in a demented state by the Red Army, which rescued them only to shoot them afterwards. The Army also destroyed the monastery so that all traces of the ghastly happening would be wiped out. Collins based his monologue on this incident and on the premise that one of the two survivors Captain Vukhov and Major Rubin was sane and could give evidence in court.

The significance of the "e" in the title is not lost on those who care for the niceties of language. What Vukhov seeks is more than the legal "judgment" of a court martial; it is we, civil society, who are asked to pass "judgement" on his actions. But listening to his alternately calm, bitter, and impassioned narration, we find it increasingly difficult to do that. We catch ourselves wondering how we would have behaved if we'd been confined for 60 days, how long we would have starved before we possibly turned into cannibals. Would we have drawn lots with hair from our heads to decide who was to be killed? Or would we have opted out of the choice like the man who slit his wrists with a tooth pulled out from his own mouth? The man who submitted to being smothered while he slept, the man who fought his killers all the way, the man who simply lay down and died for his mates — which of them are we? And which of us would have had the courage to take the first bite?

This is an old play (it was first staged in 1975) but the questions it raises are eternal. It shatters familiar concepts and easy categories to smithereens. Murder, compassion, sacrifice, courage, truth, morality and humanity acquire new meanings. The powerful script brims with irony: soldiers starve at the very place where monks observed ritual fasts for spiritual enlightenment; Vukhov is accused of murder while sanctioned mass murders take place in "the theatre of war", a war that was the direct cause of his incarceration and subsequent "crime".

Rehaan Engineer chose to play Vukhov (Russian accent in place) with a mixture of outward calm and inner desperation. Assuming an ironic demeanour, he deliberately glossed over gruesome descriptions. Anger flashed occasionally, and he gave in to grief just once - when he spoke of how he had cradled his crazed friend in his arms and described to him warm memories from his own past. Did he almost underplay the role? Was he too controlled? It's a moot point, for there are many ways to play a character like Vukhov. There is no denying that this actor gripped the audience (all except those with cell phones and weak bladders) for a non-stop 150 minutes, painting a picture of horror with fine brush strokes.


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