Tuesday, 10 July 2007

Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

This play is strongly associated with the South African actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona who devised it along with Athol Fugard. Indeed the original cast recently revived it to great effect at the Lyttelton Theatre on the south bank.

Peter Brook’s new production provides a welcome opportunity to see another version of the play within the space of a few short months. It is performed in French by francophone African actors. Non-French speakers in the audience are aided by surtitles – so it’s no more complex than watching a sub-titled film.

The play is staged simply: what is in the performing area can almost be considered ‘found’ objects. Among other things there are a couple of flats that double as signs for “Styles the Photographers” and are reversed to hang clothes. The lighting is straightforward too. Yet in this simplicity there is great power. The seemingly discarded becomes a significant environment for the characters and thus mirrors their position in an apartheid society.

What this production also does is demonstrate that the play is not just a historical document from apartheid era South Africa but has relevance for the world today. Its critique applies to any society which oppresses its members.

Habib Dembete and Pitcho Womba Konga inhabit their roles completely. Dembete in particular gives a stellar performance as both Styles and Bantu, showing the intelligence and cunning needed to survive within an oppressive regime. In contrast Konga as the eponymous Sizwe Bansi shows the political and social awakening of a naturally good-natured person. He is a stirring giant representing the rising anger of the previously dispossessed; a people who are coming to realise that they have been systematically exploited and undervalued as human beings. It is a disturbing and powerful moment of theatre and confirms this play’s continuing potency.

The Pit Theatre, Barbican

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