19th March 2007
Although Siwe Banzi Is Dead was devised by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona 35 years ago as a particular response to apartheid era South Africa, it more than survives the test of time.
It starts with John Kani’s as Styles drawing the audience in with his stories of work on a car production line, the relationships between the black employees and the white employer, and his determination to work on his own account as a photographer. It is a bravura performance, full of energy that dominates the stage. It is also a little unsettling because it is on the verge of black stereotyping, yet this is undercut by what he actually says about the ruling class and life under the apartheid system.
The tone of the play changes even further when Winston Ntshona’s Sizwe Banzi turns up to have his photograph taken. He wants send the picture to his wife and children. Questions of identity, survival under an oppressive regime and – indeed – of humanity are raised. They are dealt with apparent lightness but an underlying forcefulness and cogency. Sizwe Banzi himself does not have the correct papers to allow him to remain in the city and work, but there are ways round this. We are shown the reality of living in an apartheid society, what identity means, and how the poor and dispossessed survive within a system that denies their humanity.
The staging is simple yet hugely effective. We move from photographer’s studio to factory floor to back streets to church in the blink of an eye. All this is accomplished with the minimum of props. One of the extraordinary things about this production was that despite the vast Lyttelton stage the performances of the two actors were so commanding that the audience remained totally engrossed and riveted throughout.
While, Siwe Banzi Is Dead is about the pass laws of apartheid era South Africa it is more than just a powerful historical document. It still resonates with the times we live in – modern parallels are there to be seen.
Lyttelton Theatre until 4th April