Prior to the revival of the classic Sizwe Bansi is Dead at the National Theatre in March, legendary South African actor/playwright John Kani brings his post-apartheid drama Nothing but the Truth to Hampstead Theatre for a short run.
The shadow of Athol Fugard looms large over this play. Thats not surprising as its the tradition that Kani comes from and he is best-known for his collaborations with Fugard they co-wrote (with Winston Ntshona) Sizwe Bansi and The Island and Kani starred in Fugards international hit Master Harold And the Boys. This new play deals with memories, personal and national, and the problems of combining humanity with the ongoing political and social struggle.
Nothing but the Truth is set in Port Elizabeth around the year 2000, when the country is still trying to establish its identity following the apartheid era. Temba, an eminent political activist living in exile in London, has died. At the family home in South Africa, his brother Sipho (Kani) tries to come to terms with his memories, amidst feelings of betrayal and loss. Cared for by his only daughter Thando (Motshabi Tyelele), he leads a simple domestic life, working as an assistant librarian and aspiring to take over the running of the library. You can start to see the significance, as the personal situation reflects the bigger picture.
Into their lives comes Tembas daughter Mandisa (Rosie Motene), a London girl who brings with her all the prejudices and feelings of someone poised between the two worlds. This leads to cathartic family revelations which force Sipho to confront both his own past and the consequences of his countrys progress. In reconciliation, justice can become buried and the play urges us to confront history full-on rather than sweep it under the carpet in the interests of moving on.
Theres something particularly significant in the fact that Mandisa brings her fathers ashes with her, when Sipho was expecting a body to see and bury. Without a corporeal presence, albeit dead, but just a jar of ashes he cant begin to deal with the past.
In the dramatis personae – an old man and two young women – the stage is already set for a clash of generations and ideologies which can learn from each other. Kani is hugely sympathetic as Sipho, maybe a bit too much so, as theres a tyrannical streak in him which would benefit from a harder characterisation at times. Nevertheless, this is a fine performance, well supported by the two women. This isnt sophisticated playwriting or acting but a thought-provoking and touching drama that deals with issues at once simple and complex. The image of Siphos childhood toy, a wire double-decker bus that his wayward brother destroys, will stay with me for a long time.
The play is ably directed by Janice Honeyman, formerly Associate Director of The Market Theatre and Artistic Director of the Johannesburg Civic Theatre. The excellent design is by Sarah Roberts. Nothing but the Truth runs at Hampstead for three weeks, then tours to Newcastle, Leeds, Salford, Birmingham, Leicester, Nottingham and Cambridge, so theres plenty of opportunity to catch this authentic voice of the new South Africa.