Sunday, April 01, 2007

Capturing a moment in time (Sizwe Banzi is Dead - National Theatre)

Against my better judgement (given her woeful record at picking stuff for us to see) I let the girl drag me to see Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the National last night. I'm so glad I did.

Sizwe was written in 1972 as a protest against the apartheid era pass book laws that forced non-whites in South Africa to always carry documentation proving they had the right to live and work in the cities. Failure to have a passbook with the correct stamp could lead to imprisonment or deportation back to the jobless countryside. The plot centres around Sizwe Banzi an illegal black labourer in Port Elizabeth who must choose between giving up his name and identity by pasting his photograph into a dead man's passbook, or being thrown out of the city and forced to trek 150 miles back to his home town, penniless and without hope of finding work.

This is without doubt a ferocious broadside against the apartheid regime that still packs an emotional punch 17 years on from the release of Mandela. Many critics have rightly drawn comparisons with the debates on ID cards and integration in today's Britain. Anybody watching the scene where a proud father is reduced to a snivelling "boy" by a white police office using the excuse of checking his passbook to humiliate him, who doesn't worry about what is to come for the ethnic minorities in this country needs to open their eyes.

But don't be fooled. This isn't a 'worthy' play. It opens with a brilliant comic monologue from John Kani, maintains a cracking pace throughout. I'm a terrible fidget but I couldn't tear my eyes away from the stage.

John Kani and Winston Ntshona are reunited to play the characters they created with the white playwright Athol Fugard 25 years ago. They shared the 1975 Tony for their performances in the original production and you can see why. Their comic timing is immaculate, and they manage to portray the anger and humiliation of proud men ground down by an unfair system without resorting to histrionics. The parts are written for young men, angry at how the system has stolen their future. Kani and Ntshona may not have that energy anymore, but instead they imbue the text with sadness at wast of their characters lives.

The run at the National ends on the 4th of April. My advice. Beg or steal a ticket if you have to. Theatre both this funny and with this emotional impact does not come along that often.

PS The South African born Mark Shenton has an interesting personal view on his blog

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