Sizwe Banzi Is Dead – March 2007

7/10

Devised by: Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona

Directed by: Aubrey Sekhabi

Venue: Lyttelton Theatre

Date: Thursday 22nd March 2007

This was a great performance of a really good play. I hadn’t heard of it before, and didn’t know what to expect – perhaps something a bit serious and weighty. Not a bit of it. The proceedings start with John Kani coming on stage with a newspaper. He’s wearing a white coat over his clothes, and he takes the chair to the front of the stage, sits on it, and starts to read the paper, chatting to the audience all the while. The house lights are up, so there’s no hiding place. The rest of the stage is almost bare – there’s just a table, a board on an easel at the back with Styles Photographic Studio across it, covered with lots of photos and indications of his work – “Weddings”, “Passports”, etc. To the left is an old-fashioned camera on a tripod, and to the right a smaller table with a telephone and some bits and bobs. Nothing else, although even these items are removed when not needed, leaving a very bare acting space.

John Kani chats to us in the persona of Styles for quite some time – almost 45 minutes, I think. The production only lasts 90 minutes, so I did wonder when we would be seeing Winston Ntshona. But the chat was so entertaining. He laughed a lot, this character, telling us what was in the paper, then telling us about his time at the factory (very funny, especially when he was translating for the “baas”), and then telling us about the magic of his studio, where people come to live out their dreams. He even gets a couple of audience members up from the front row to show them his pictures. Today, Sophie Okonedo was one of those selected, and she looked so shy getting up onto the stage. Styles chatted with them, as he chatted with all of us, including us all as part of his community.

Of course, there were more moving parts of his dialogue, along with massive amounts of humour, but most of the difficult stuff was in the second half, after the man who had been Sizwe Banzi arrived to have his picture taken. The mood shifted gradually, without ever becoming bleak or terribly dark, yet we were shown the lengths many black people had to go to in order to survive under apartheid. Sizwe Banzi, played by Winston Ntshona, was a simple man from the country, come to town to make some money for his family. By the time he arrives at Styles’ studio, he’s lost his name, and we get to see the process by which this happens. He’s not allowed to stay in town, and his passport has been stamped as such by white officials. He’ll be in real trouble if he doesn’t get back to his family by yesterday. Out on the town with a helpful chap, Buntu, they come across a dead black guy, who happens to have the right kind of stamps in his passport. With much reluctance, Sizwe agrees to take on the dead man’s identity. The next day he goes to the studio to have his picture taken, so he can send it to his wife, and let her know that her “husband” is dead, but that he, Robert, will be sending her money and hopefully a permit so that she and the family can join him in town.

His story is very moving, and still there’s plenty of humour on show. Even the ridiculous lengths to which Sizwe would have to go to get permission to move back to the town is turned to laughter. Buntu spells out in great detail how Sizwe would have to get this letter, then that letter, then this stamp and that stamp, etc., and after a great long speech, sums it up with one word – “Simple!”

The performances were just superb throughout. These two actors helped to devise this piece, and originally played it thirty-five years ago, as much younger men. Not only is it still fresh today (they had reworked it quite a bit in the first half to make it more topical), but their skills have presumably only improved over the years. We’re unlikely to see this play done better. (I enjoyed it so much we bought the play text afterwards, hence my knowledge of the reworking).

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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