Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
RNT Lyttelton
(2007)

L to R: 1 Winston Ntshona, John Kani

Sizwe Banzi is dying a lot in London this year. This must be the definitive production, featuring the original performers and co-writers thirty-five years on. However, the competition also has a great pedigree, since the Barbican version is directed by Peter Brook.

The nature of this South African township play has changed with time. In 1972, it was a highly-charged political piece that risked the freedom of everyone involved in a rare multi-racial project. Now, events in that country have changed the play into a historical document that warns future generations around the world of what can happen if a totalitarian state is allowed to flourish.

The first part starts as a few warm-up jokes delivered by genial photographer Mr Styles prior to the dimming of the house lights. He is played by John Kani, who has stayed over after appearing in the London premiere of his new play, Nothing but the Truth.

Gently, Mr S informs us about life in his studio and more widely in the African township community of New Brighton, which is attached to Port Elizabeth.

He has done well for himself, having started as something akin to a slave labourer in Henry Ford II's factory, where obedience and appearances were everything. Eventually, despite the sterling efforts of bureaucrats, he managed to turn a shop next to an undertaker's into a photographic studio.

There he pleases the customers, while at the same time carrying on his own mission to record "the story of my people", their dreams, hopes and lives held on living room walls across the shanty towns for posterity.

This section ends with the arrival of Winston Ntshona playing an illiterate customer Robert in a remarkable beaten up hat, who is soon turned into an unlikely male model. This enables him to send a white-suited photo to his wife 150 miles away.

The family are separated by the Pass Laws of the state but not to the extent that they might have been, as we discover during the second half of Aubrey Sekhabi's 90 minute production.

Robert was originally Sizwe Banzi but allowed his pass book to expire, thereby rendering him illegal in the city. If he were discovered, then arrest, and, it was intimated the fate of Steve Biko, might easily follow.

After a delightfully drunken night out in a shebeen, a solution is found by Sizwe and his supportive pal (Kani again) leading to the play's ironic title.

This pair may now be in their sixties but they are still endearing performers who can hold the eye either alone or as a duo in this big theatre, using only minimal props.

Kani is a big man but still energetic and light on his feet, with a twinkle in the eye. Ntshona has an infinitely malleable face that conveys so much; and the innocence of a Stan Laurel, who will come out on top in the end.

This is a great evening of political theatre and the chance to see two legendary stage figures live. Do not miss out.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher