Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Young Vic) – review – Carole Woddis

 

Alongside the main stage productions undertaken at the Young Vic, the theatre never ceases, to its great credit, to keep renewing its creative pool and encouraging the next generation.

In choosing Sizwe Banzi is Dead for his first full Young Vic production, Matthew Xia, Genesis Future Director Award’s 2013 award winner has revived a South African classic that along with so many other plays from Cape Town and Johannesburg’s Market Theatre under Barney Simon did so much to `educate’ and open a generation’s eyes to the horrors of South African apartheid.

I’ve no doubt Xia’s production with Sibusiso Mamba and Tonderai Munyevu in the roles originally taken by the now legendary Winston Ntshona and John Kani – who with Athol Fugard were the plays creators – will come as something of a shock even to today’s more fortunate young audiences. As you enter, the stairs and auditorium are segregated by ropes – whites one way, blacks the other. Even now, the divide comes as a shock, a simple but effective theatrical touch that immediately brings home the process of dehumanisation that continues in so many different if more subtle forms but in the apartheid era culminated in the hated Pass Book that utterly controlled where black and coloured populations could live and work.

What I remember most vividly about the plays of the time however, politics aside – which were never less than the driving force of any piece – was the style of performance. Kani, Ntshona and others brought a whole new, physical African ebullience to the most harrowing of tales. Magicians of despair, they turned cruelty into hilarity, horror into a joyous entertainment, a celebration of life.

So it is here with the Swaziland-born Sibusiso and Tonderai. In the midst of a bare stage surrounded by corrugated iron and wooden flats – a reminder of the townships to which so many of South Africa’s population were and still are condemned – Tonderai’s perennially smiling photographer chats and dances, summons up customers and tells us proudly how his shack became a photographer’s studio serving the community and providing it with photographic cards for all occasions including the hated Pass Book. Into his shop one day comes a nervous looking customer, Sizwe Banzi. And it is his story that Sibusiso and Tonderai enact – a story at once humble, comical and heartbreaking of a man having to lose his identity and adopt another in order to gain some freedom and a life.

As towering a presence as Tonderai is quick-silvered, Sibusiso’s Sizwe, trapped by the dictates of his passbook, at one point in fury strips down to his underpants and in an echo of Shakespeare’s Shylock cries, `who cares for who in this world? I am a man. A man. I’ve got a heart, eyes, ears…’.

An amazing moment, the speech resonates down through the years, as applicable to any number of situations since Fugard, Kani and Ntshona first performed this piece in 1972.

A salutary reminder of how far we’ve come and how much further we still have to go. Sizwe Banzi is Dead is at The Maria, Young Vic Theatre, London, to 8 Mar 2014.

See www.youngvic.org

Then tours to Plymouth, Hull, Sheffield, The Albany in Deptford, Birmingham and Liverpool.

For more details see www.eclipsetheatre.org.uk

© Carole Woddis, Feb 2014.