Sizwe Banzi Is Dead was written collaboratively by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and in performance the text itself was often improvised by Kani and Ntshona, meaning the running time would vary from night to night. For the three collaborators, it was clearly a very personal and personalised piece of work. How, then, do a different trio tackle the play in a different context, over forty years after it was first staged? And what does this piece have to say to us in 2014?
Director Matthew Xia first creates a ‘false’ context by separating the audience into “whites” and “non-whites”, forcing us through different entrances so that we must sit apart from one another in the theatre itself. It’s a simple but effective trick, imposing the laws of apartheid-era South Africa onto us and creating a strange air of unease. At first, it feels like this will be the end of it, but Xia intelligently locates the latter half of the play stage right, in front of the “non-white” section of the audience, thus alienating the rest of us, locating whites at a remove and asking us to reconfigure where we place ourselves in relation to the characters.
Though the backdrop to this play is a segregated society, however, the discussion of racism is not at the forefront here. Instead, notions of identity and its presentation come to the fore. In a surveillance state, it’s Buntu and Sizwe’s contemplation of what makes a man which exerts itself most powerfully. Sizwe Banzi – who decides to drop his name and take that of a found corpse, Robert Zwelinzima – is forced to give up his name to save his life; “I am a man”, he states, questioningly. In an age when our identities are forged around our Google searches and Twitter followers, this scene becomes terrifyingly relevant.
Styles’ opening monologue, telling the stories of “people the writers of the big books forgot about”, also feels very close to home. He works his way through the basic, staged photos in his studio like the rest of us do when flicking back through Facebook albums. Each image tells a story, he explains, but only the story the photographer wants to tell.
There are also certain discrepancies between the world of the play and its current context. Styles’ and Zwelinzima’s obsession with wealth as a means of achieving freedom jars slightly in a neoliberal setting, and though Tonderai Munyevu delivers the opening monologue with extraordinary warmth and wit, you wonder where else he’d be able to take it if it weren’t for the conscriptions of the script.
The chemistry between Munyevu’s Styles and Sibusiso Mamba’s ‘Zwelinzima’ is palpable, and carries this poetic text over its 100-minute running time. As they switch roles in the latter half of the play, you get a real sense of play and theatricality, with each inhabiting ‘roles’ within the frame of the text, helping these characters think through these issues. Richard Hammarton’s music and sound design aids this shift, as it moves from moody tones to buoyant jubilation.
Styles’ colourful playbox of a studio opens up within Hyemi Shin’s sparse design of palettes and corrugated metal to reveal a world of possibility, where the subjects can be anywhere they want to be. It works in tandem with Ciaran Cunningham’s powerful lighting, which never allows us to forget that photographs are snapshots in time, and at times takes on a character all of its own.
Xia’s welcoming, open direction ultimately demonstrates the humanity of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, but doesn’t cover over the dark and troubled undertones, hammering home the seriousness of the necessary crime Buntu and Banze commit by stealing Zwelinzima’s identity. The evening, however, ends on a positive note, as upbeat music accompanies a blinding light, and both sides of the audience mingle once again.