November 09, 2007

Siswe Banzi finds a New Identity

Murray Bramwell previews the current production of a South African drama classic directed by theatre legend Peter Brook.

Siswe Banzi is Dead opens at the Space on November 7 but it is not for the first time in Adelaide. Athol Fugard’s play, written in collaboration with actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona, was scheduled, along with its companion work The Island, at the 1976 Adelaide Festival. The two plays with their vivid and disturbing accounts of life in South Africa under apartheid had just performed in London and then in New York where they won a Tony Award. The Adelaide Festival, as it often has done, staged the plays at a time when their impact was especially strong.

Passionately performed by young black actors, who had experienced many of the indignities described in the texts, and who were arrested briefly on their return to South Africa, these plays were like reports from the front line. They had an immediacy and a sense of danger even though we in the audience were a safe distance from the terrible conditions of the political prison on Robben Island and the humiliations of the identity pass system which limited movement for the majority of South African citizens. The details and the injustice were nonetheless shocking. It was like seeing a play now, performed by Burmese actors, about current internment conditions in Myanmar. As then Festival Director, Anthony Steel recalls, Adelaide audiences back in 1976 found the experience of the plays overwhelming.

Influenced by the Greek classics, Samuel Beckett and the radical theatre of Grotowski, Athol Fugard has described how much of his theatre originates from a specific trigger. “The starting point to our work was always at least an image,” Fugard writes in an introduction to his New Brighton plays, “or sometimes an already structured complex of images about which I, as a writer, was obsessional. In the case of Siswe Banzi our starting point was my fascination with a studio photograph I had once seen of a man with a cigarette in one hand and a pipe in the other.”

From this comes the character of Styles, a photographer, whose monologue takes up the first half the play. Through a virtuosic range of characters and cameos, Styles describes how he gives his customers their reality, his photos representing the only tangible record of their lives. Then Siswe appears, calling himself Robert and hoping Styles the photographer will help him fake the papers and assume the identity of a man found dead in a gutter. In order to have the all-important documentation Siswe Banzi is willing to countenance the “death “of his own identity.

Just as Athol Fugard and his collaborators are familiar to Adelaide audiences, so is the work of Peter Brook. Brook is a major figure in world theatre, whose reputation has only grown in the fifty year span of his career. He began in the late 1940s with bold re-stagings of Shakespeare and later, his radical re-readings of King Lear and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the latter astounding Australian audiences on its tour in the early 70s) secured his reputation. Brook attended the Adelaide Festival in 1980 and was a regular sight at Writers Week as well as at the performances by his company, the CICT, based in Paris. At the Anstey’s Hill quarry Brook’s company dazzled audiences with versions of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, the Persian narrative poem The Conference of the Birds and a play based on an anthropological work, The Ik, about the decline of an African tribe whose culture and territories have been taken over. At the time Brook drew parallels with the plight of Australian Aboriginal communities. He returned again in 1988 with his marathon Indian epic, also at the Anstey’s quarry, The Mahabharata, a work ambitious in its scope and inventive in its theatrics – and fondly recalled by all who saw it.

The current CICT/Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production of Siswe Banzi is Dead, directed by Brook now 82, has him reconnecting with a play he first saw in London in 1973. In an interview for The Guardian, he described the impact of the play – its physicality and raw emotion. Brook remembered (as many of us have) the moment in The Island when, in order to cleanse a speck of dirt from his fellow prisoner Winston Ntshona’s eye, John Kani urinated on to his hand. “There was no water in the prison yard, so how else could he do it?” comments Brook, “It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in the theatre in terms of the relation between imagination and absolute truth.”

For the performances in Siswe Banz, Brook has cast Malian actor Habib Debele to play the role of Styles, and by all reports, he has made it distinctively and brilliantly his own. Pitcho Womba Konga, an actor and rapper from the Republic of Congo, plays the role of Siswe Banzi. The once immediate issues of apartheid are now part of a painful history, but Peter Brook is insistent that the play is as pertinent as ever. “It is about a fundamental lack of respect for the African,” he says. And it has a global significance. As he says in The Guardian interview – “In the play the character cannot move 20 miles from the country into the city without a passport. Now there is mass migration and people are moving thousands of miles in containers. But the terrible fear of being asked at any time for their papers is the same.”

Siswe Banzi is Dead plays at the Festival Centre Space until November 17.

“Siswe Banzi finds a new identity” The Adelaide Review, No.329, November 9, 2007, p.26.

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