The system or the prisoner: who is the criminal?

Originally published in Cue.

The Antidote’s blurb in the official programme gives only the slightest hint of the play’s plot and themes. The strange mix of sentence fragments and wordplay reads like something a beat poet wrote while on an acid trip.

But don’t let the convoluted description dissuade you from watching this intense piece of theatre from the Durban University of Technology.

The play opens on a smoky set scrawled with neon orange graffiti that resembles prison tattoos. The ensemble cast of seven fill the small theatre with the haunting melody of a prison song. Some are dressed in the orange overalls of inmates and others in the brown uniforms of wardens.

Set in a high-security prison in South Africa, The Antidote follows the clandestine testing of an experimental aggression-reducing drug on convicts. As in Joss Whedon’s cult TV classic Firefly, this attempt to improve humanity backfires drastically on the people pulling the strings.

As the prisoners start to lose their minds, so does the play, resulting in some disjointed and fragmented scenes. Unfortunately, much of the greater social commentary in the dialogue becomes indecipherable in the melee but The Antidote’s indictment of a corrupt, uncaring and broken system is not lost.

It is a system that reduces prisoners to the level of beasts. “Inmates are animals, doctor, like chimps,” Doctor Stephanie Maputo (Sweetness Ngobese), the prison psychiatrist assures her colleague Doctor Petersen (Kagisho Tsimakwane).

Throughout the play, there is a tension between its attempt to faithfully document the prison system and its absurdist quality of theatre which is fascinating to watch. It pulls no punches and contains graphic descriptions and portrayals of violence and rape — both in and outside prison.

The most violent character, Jazzman Mqadi (Sibusiso Ngcobo), is truly psychopathic. As “General” of the infamous 28s prison gang, he achieved his position through the murder of a prison warden. In one bloodcurdling scene he delights in publicly cutting up and eating the genitals of another inmate. Supported by strong performances by playwright Simemezelo Xulu and Andile Khanyase and adorned with prison ink, Ngcobo is terrifying.

Some of the acting is erratic, however, possibly due to the fact the performers are taking on several roles.

The soundtrack, a reverberation of songs that are mournful and angry, adds another dimension to the play’s rich complexity.

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