Sizwe Banzi Is Dead @ National Theatre, London

cast list
John Kani
Winston Ntshona

directed by
Aubrey Sekhabi
When Sizwe Banzi Is Dead was first staged in South Africa in 1972 its run was interrupted several times by the security police. What offended the apartheid regime so much was not just the plays explicit condemnation of racism in general and the pass-book laws in particular but also the fact that this was a black and white collaboration.

Written by the well-established white playwright Athol Fugard and the two young black actors who performed it, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, the play was later performed internationally and became known as one of the most courageous and powerful theatrical condemnations of apartheid.

Amazingly the same two actors have returned to London with the show 34 years after first staging it here alongside their equally famous Fugard collaboration The Island (which they also performed at the National in 2000). Although the political situation in post-apartheid South Africa is now very different, this Cape Town Baxter Theatre production, directed by Aubrey Sekhabi, still impresses as a passionate and dynamic defence of human rights.

The piece begins with a brilliant extended monologue by the irrepressibly cheerful Styles (Kani), once a production-line worker in a Ford car factory but now with his own portrait photography studio in Port Elizabeth. He recalls with comic glee the elaborate preparations made for the visit of Henry Ford II to the factory, as the white managers try to give the false impression of high health and safety standards and a happy black workforce. But his account still conveys a strong sense of the dangerous drudgery and racial discrimination of his former job.

Styles then explains how in his photographic studio, a stronghold of dreams, he records the lives and hopes of ordinary black people, whose names will not be found in the history books. As he does so, a nervous and self-conscious client (Ntshona) arrives, who hesitatingly gives his name as Robert Zwelinzima and says that he wants to send a photo of himself back to his family in the country who are not permitted to live with him in the city.

In a flashback we discover that his real name is Sizwe Banzi, but urged on by his pragmatic landlord Buntu (also played by Kani) he has assumed the identity of a dead man. His new pass book allows him to work in a textile factory in Port Elizabeth, and thus send much-needed money back to his wife and four young children. As Buntu remarks, Your number is more important than your name, a damning indictment of the inhuman conditions of the time.

What comes across so powerfully is the way in which a repressively bureaucratic system restricted the movements of black people through the infamous pass books with their NI (Native Identity, not National Insurance) numbers, and how state controls affected their everyday lives. But there is plenty of zestful humour in the show too, a tribute to a courageous spirit which despite the abuse refused to be dehumanized.

With no set, and just a few props including a photograph-strewn notice-board, it is striking how the two actors who present a terrific double act – create environments through their physical performances.

Kani mimes the machinery-dominated work he used to be imprisoned by, and also the more agreeably challenging activity of photographing a 29-member family. His upbeat, ebullient Styles, forever accentuating the positive and encouraging the aspirations of his customers, contrasts with the more realistic, politically aware Buntu who knows exactly how the brutal system works.

Ntshona, though looking far too old to have such a young family and be as naive as the character he plays, is still wonderfully expressive, both with his body and his face. His ridiculous posing when being photographed is very amusing, as is his drunken walk back from a late-night bar, when full of a false sense of freedom.

Kani and Ntshona have made Sizwe Banzi Is Dead so much their own that it will be fascinating to see how director Peter Brook puts his own stamp on it in his French-language production of the play at the Barbican in May.

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