The Ice Cream Boys covers a vital and important part of South African history that is just starting to come under examination. Much like Tree earlier this year, it deals with the feelings of the current generation of South Africans towards their current political situation and recent past.
However, like the two principle characters here, this play can’t escape its past. Most of the imagined discussion between disgraced ex-President Jacob Zuma (Andrew Francis) and one of his fiercest critics – former ANC comrade Ronnie Kasrils (Jack Klaff) – is about that past. When the struggle went right and when and how it all went wrong.
The title is a reference to the shared love of Ice Cream between the two characters in their younger and more relevant days. It also speaks to an anecdote told about 2/3rds of the way by Zuma of the time he was poorest, leaving home to join the struggle, penniless and turned away. A woman gave him a few pennies for an Ice Cream and instead of investing it in bread, travel, his future, he buys the ice cream. This is a man of immediate gratification of his appetites. But also a man who knew great poverty who was imprisoned for many years for the struggle. He, therefore, feels he has deserved his appetites.
Zuma is not a straightforward villain, but he’s close. His character is best summed up in the way he describes his sparring mate Kasrils (for don’t most political Villians describe themselves best in what they profess to despise?) “they learn to be charming. They practice until they can twist anybody around their fingers.” Zuma is clearly a charmer. He still has supporters (heard at one time offstage chanting the name of the former president) and has had many women and fathered many children. Even while in the hospital he flirts to the point of discomfort with his nurse.
Kasrils is harder to draw. He’s definitely not the villain of the piece but neither is his life or choices straightforward. Throughout, Zuma accuses him of the same sort of personal weaknesses that he has indulged in, though he denies it all. He is a Communist in a world where Communism, as practised, has failed and been corrupted – not least by men like Zuma.
The final character that appears in the main timeline is Thandi Dube (Bu Kunene) – the nurse assigned to look after them both. Unlike the two old men, we get little of Thandi’s history. We know where and how she lives, but she is, for the most part, a functionary – which is what makes her breakthrough moment towards the end all the more powerful.
The staging is restricted by the space at Jermyn Street Theatre – though I still feel the play could have been a little more dynamic. The pace and lyricism of the script is not as well served by the direction as it could be. the set is functional so actually works precisely well to invoke the hospital atmosphere. But it could have been a little barer to give the actors and direction more room to breathe.
The Ice Cream Boys reminds me of the famous quote by communist theorist Antonio Gramsci “The old is dying and the new cannot be born.” This is Thandi’s tension as she struggles between her respect for the freedom fighters that saved her country before she was born and the corrupt or self-indulgent men they later became. Ultimately this may become the story of her generations.
But in The Ice Cream Boys this is not yet her story. This is a story about the struggles of the generation above her. Their political struggle, their personal struggles, their moral struggles. The question is how to pass the torch while these struggles remain unresolved. This feel like the sequel this play deserves.