November 23, 2007

Re-inventing Sizwe


Sizwe Banzi is Dead
by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona
French adaptation by Marie-Helene Estienne

The CICT/Theatre des Bouffes du Nord
The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre
November 7. 2007.

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

Some productions create great expectations and there can be few greater than for director Peter Brook. His work has the status of legend in this city – especially for those who rate such productions as The Conference of the Birds, The Mahabharata and the white box A Midsummer Night’s Dream as signal moments in the theatre, yardsticks by which all else is measured, and, sometimes, with which lesser knuckles are rapped. Brook has deserved his reputation for invention and almost mesmerizing clarity, but it does not mean that he is infallible. One of his most admirable qualities is his willingness to risk his hand – with the craggy invented language of Orghast for instance, or recently, the almost casual, anti-canonical revivals of The Tempest and Hamlet.

Brook had long remembered the impact of Athol Fugard’s New Brighton plays, performed with such intensity by John Kani and Winston Ntshona at the Royal Court in London in 1973, and his decision to revive Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a bold one. His production, adapted by Marie-Helene Estienne, stays close to the original text which is prophetic of many things – including the rise of Chinese industry and the globalization of production.

These tectonic movements are all narrated from the personal perspective of Styles, the former Ford worker who presents a sequence of character vignettes of the boss, Bass Bradley, and his own comically resistant responses to a managerial visit to the factory. But Styles soon learns that he wants to be his own man and sets up a photographic studio – whose passing trade he energetically mimics while noting that these photos are some of the few indicators of individuality black South Africans can enjoy.

The play then takes a more ominous turn when a man calling himself Robert comes to have his picture taken. His real name is Sizwe Banzi and, prompted by his wily and pragmatic friend Buntu, he is about to take on the identity of a man they found dead while drunkenly returning home at night. Sizwe rehearses his new guise – complete with the all-important identity number – until he can then visit Styles for the confirming portrait of his new self.

Peter Brook and designer Abdou Ouologuem have opted for simple and adaptable décor – stacks of folded cardboard, movable clothes racks, portable studio lights – littered like the detritus of a poor world. This is a disheveled version of Brook’s Empty Space, a place for imagination and invention and where the actors themselves must bring the play to life.

As Styles, Malian actor Habib Dembele, is a diminutive and lively presence who travels from one characterization to another with speed and pleasing comedy but whose use of mime and voice effects at times lack freshness and interest. As Buntu, though,he is almost sinister in his opportunism, reflecting vividly the desperate times the play chronicles. Pitcho Womba Konga is an imposing figure and his portrait snapping moment as Sizwe is memorably comic but elsewhere, when he must express the deep grief of relinquishing his identity – that the citizen known as Sizwe Banzi is now dead – it is emotionally unpersuasive.

Fugard’s play, like The Island (with which it has always been twinned – and which Brook should also have used) is an intense account of a particular time and place. Translated to French and performed without the strong South African dialect and circumstance, the play has become abstracted and less potent. Brook is right in emphasising the continuing, indeed worsening, global problem of travel restrictions, illegal refugee persecution and the desperation of displaced families. This is an issue all too pertinent in this country where our duties to the larger world have been shirked and misrepresented. But in reinventing Sizwe Banzi is Dead for a new century it has been disconnected from the Townships where this play gained its authenticity – and regrettably, it has lost some impact and authority in the process.

“Re-inventing Sizwe” The Adelaide Review, No. 330, November 23, 2007, p.28.

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