Breakfast With Mugabe, Duchess Theatre, London <br/> Tosca's Kiss, Orange Tree, Richmond

The man inside the monster
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The Independent Culture

In this transfer from Stratford, the dramatist Fraser Grace and Antony Sher (here making an impressive directing debut) offer the audience a somewhat daunting proposition: Breakfast with Mugabe.

Set in the luxurious State House in Harare in the run-up to the 2002 elections, the play was triggered by a newspaper report alleging that the President of Zimbabwe had been receiving treatment for depression. It imagines a series of encounters between Mugabe (impersonated with uncanny brilliance by Joseph Mydell) and Peric (David Rintoul), the white psychiatrist summoned to investigate the cause of the President's belief that he's being haunted by the troubled spirit of a murdered Zanu-PF comrade.

An edgy mix of psychiatric and political probing, these sessions permit Grace to delve speculatively into the mind of a hero of the liberation-turned-villainous oppressor. There's black comedy and a ticking tension in the power-play between the two men. Mydell's beadily watchful, scarily unpredictable President insists that Peric replace his tie with one more fitting for the setting, while the doctor decrees that, on psychotherapeutic grounds, he will address the patient as Robert - a touch deftly in accord with the play's strategy of trying to discover the human inside the monster.

We see how the colonial past - Mugabe's bitter memory of his 11-year detention, for example, and Ian Smith's refusal to allow him leave to bury his son - has warped the President, but also how he trades on that legacy of injustice to sanction his own thuggery.

There's a superb passage where he plays on the several meanings of the word "settle". It can be used as a euphemism for occupying land with no thought for the indigenous inhabitants. A "settlement" can be a tendentious way of describing an agreement forced on a people (as was the case, he claims, with Britain and the Independence of Zimbabwe). And then, he says ominously, there's a "settle" as in settling someone's hash by eliminating them. Having displayed vestiges of colonial arrogance, Rintoul's bullish Peric - owner of a tobacco farm and partner of a black woman - comes to understand the force of Mugabe's semantic threat.

With excellent support from Noma Dumezweni as the President's glamorous but secretly terrified wife, Breakfast with Mugabe offers serious food for thought.

Tosca's Kiss, a flawed but fascinating play by Kenneth Jupp, is set at the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, focusing on the cross-examination and acquittal of Hjalmar Schacht, president of the Reichsbank and the money man behind Germany's rearmament under Hitler. Proceedings are viewed from the perspective of Rebecca West, the celebrated writer who went to Nuremberg to report on the trials for the Telegraph.

West had an affair with the American judge Francis Biddle (here, suavely impersonated by David Yelland). "Are we ever justified in compromising our true beliefs for the sake of some future benefit?" Julia Watson's captivating West asks. This, for Jupp, is the crucial question (his title refers to Puccini's heroine's refusal to grant sexual favours to Scarpia, chief of police and proto-Nazi). According to him, the Allies let Schacht go because, in the Cold War climate, they needed his expertise to build up Germany as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

Premiered in a well-acted production by Auriol Smith, Jupp's drama has to twist certain details and obscure others to make its case. For example, you get the impression that Schacht (played with devastating hauteur and barbed irony by Charles Kay) was feted in America. In fact, he was re-arrested by the Germans and not released until 1948.

The play truly disturbs when Schacht launches into his justification for the amorality of international capitalism in terms that remind us that money is fickle and has no qualms about backing a dictator, whether Hitler or Saddam.

'Breakfast with Mugabe' booking to 9 June (020-7494 5075); 'Tosca's Kiss' to 3 June (020-8940 3633)

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