Sher's debut as director puts Robert Mugabe on the couch

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The Independent Culture

The controversial play, Breakfast With Mugabe, is being staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon from next week. It is based on fictional conversations with the white psychiatrist helping him to slay his mental demons.

Robert Mugabe has long been been portrayed as a power-crazed madman who has brought his country to its knees with a barbarous campaign against his own people. But playwright Fraser Grace, a white Briton who has never visited Zimbabwe, based his work on an often repeated story that Mugabe spent time being treated by a psychiatrist for depression, brought on by a spirit known as a "ngozi".

The spirit is that of Josiah Tongogara, a leading figure once expected to have become the first president of a free Zimbabwe, but who died in a car accident shortly before the country's liberation.

The play also traces other key events in Mr Mugabe's life, including his abandonment by his father in childhood, the death of his first wife and the death of his son while he was incarcerated for 11 years by the white authorities in the 1960s.

Mr Mugabe has become increasingly isolated in the international community over the past few years, as white farmers have been violently expelled from their land in a bid to distribute it to poor black Zimbabweans. The country was suspended from the Commonwealth in 2002.

Sher said Mr Mugabe was an intriguing character: "He grips me. I can't stop watching him and he is more mesmeric the worse he behaves. In the play, Fraser has shown the complexities beneath the monster as well as the pain and suffering. If the play works, the audience should feel some compassion for him. I believe this play provides a very intelligent debate rather than just portray a monster."

The playwright himself said: "I came across a story about Mugabe being pursued by the vengeful spirit of a former colleague and, refused help by traditional healers, he went to a white psychiatrist. It seemed a wonderful set-up for the story. The bottom line is that if he came to see it I hope he would recognise himself. But it is a play, it's speculation. Nobody apart from him and the original psychiatrist knows what took place."