A Human Being Died That Night, currently playing at the Hampstead Theatre Downstairs is theatre, truly, at its most sublime and gut-wrenching. Nicholas Wright’s play comprises two characters that lived through South African apartheid and exist in a world still processing decades of social injustice and human atrocity. Director Jonathan Munby takes the helm of this poignant and intimate piece of drama.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela (Noma Dumezweni) opens the production with a presentation on her research as a psychologist specialising in forgiveness. In real life Pumla served under Nelson Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Committee. The play is based on the book of the same name, chronicling Pumla’s interviews with Eugene De Kock (Matthew Marsha), imprisoned for crimes against humanity whilst serving as a police officer under apartheid. Charges included six counts of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy to murder, all while carrying out his role in a government-created death squad known as C1. Like Pumla, the play is interested in how humans forgive and reconcile and how an entire country can learn to move past a painful history of injustice and murder.

Only wrought iron bars separate the audience from the prison interior as they promenade into the theatre. What is most frightening about this experience is how normal and human De Kock appears sitting in his prison uniform. Walking around the cage that contains him, one can’t help but think how docile he looks. Nicknamed by the South African press as ‘Prime Evil’, he appears to be the opposite: De Kock wears glasses, has a stutter and likes a cup of coffee. This is not how a murderer is perceived, one wants to see him as pure evil but struggles to. Pumla  is somehow able to maintain her objectivity with him; she learns that the wives of De Kock’s victims have personally forgiven him. One wife went as far to say that her tears were for both her deceased husband and for his killer.

Pumla struggles with understanding how a man like De Kock becomes a killer. At times going into her role as psychologist and attempting to analyse him, but De Kock will not allow her or himself to pit blame on his upbringing or bullying during childhood. It is a question though that perplexes De Kock himself. He does not believe God could be cruel enough to make a baby evil, that somehow this was learned behavior and not innate. It was a system that he was fed into. Pumla cannot comprehend though why he did not stop if he had the humanity to recognize these acts as evil. There was, however, a bigger system at play, a machine of evil far more complicit than De Kock and as the play goes on he comes off more as a pawn – a bloodied pawn at that.

This play is a moving study on forgiveness and reconciliation: two rights that supplant the control of government, community or culture. They are divine rights. And, it feels by the play’s end that the people of South Africa are saint-like for having moved past such a horrendous and devastating history. Atrocities that have been spoken about need to be shared far more with the world; a production like this is a step in the right direction, a catalyst for dialogue between the victim and the victimised. And in the greater scheme it is a dialogue for South Africa and the rest of the world, not allowing their history to be forgotten, but also allowing them to move past the pain and to reconcile.

A Human Being Died That Night is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 21 June. For more information and tickets, see the Hampstead Theatre website.