Review – Sizwe Banzi is Dead, National Theatre

Wednesday 21 March 2007

Sizwe Banzi is Dead

The West End Whingers’ 67 page equal opportunities and diversity policy means we are 100% committed to reserving the right to be mean-spirited about everything we see regardless of gender, race, colour, age, religion or sexual orientation.

So we were thrilled when we heard that the National Theatre in association with the Baxter Theatre Centre was to stage the classic South African drama Sizwe Banzi is Dead by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona.

Satisfyingly, this production enabled us to tick two boxes on our diversity checklist at a sitting: it has an all-black (well, there are only two people in it) cast and neither of the actors could convincingly be described as spring chickens.

This is not surprising when you consider that Kani and Ntshona were in the original 1972 production at the Space Theatre in Cape Town. It transferred to London’s Royal Court, onto the Ambassadors and thence to New York where it won the pair a Tony in 1975.

This history makes for intriguing reflections on how different the play must be with a younger cast. By our calculations Kani and Ntshona were 29 and 31 when it was first produced; today they are 64 and 66. The resonances that they bring to their parts suggest that then and now might seem like very different plays.

Which would make four different plays in total as the first half and the second half (no interval) seem like totally different plays too. 

Most of the first half features a solo Kani playing a photographer and former Ford worker and he is so engaging, funny and energetic that you would think this were a fresh experience for him. The stories he tells – occasionally directly to audience members and in a couple of instances even bringing them onto the stage – are dynamic, high spirited and entertaining. His charm provides an excellent mechanism for relating the injustices of life under apartheid.

The Whingers were enjoying the performance so much that – a la Lady from…  –  we were both rather fearing the introduction of another actor onto the stage.

But then we hadn’t reckoned on the unashamed scene-stealing genius of Ntshona who, – while barely uttering more than a few words in his first 15 minutes on stage pulled the rug (metaphorically, obviously; there’s not much in the way of set) from under Kani’s feet and drew the audience to him, gurning like a mime artist in a zoot suit.

The tenor of the play changes significantly in the second half – less comedy, more drama – and it’s a bold choice on the part of the authors. After the way the audience has been warmed up it’s an uphill struggle for the remainder of the play not to feel like a let-down. They just about pull it off – thanks to the performances and the absorbing direction of the new story (which we won’t spoil for you).

Phil – as always with his mind on higher things – was particularly impressed by the peeling and eating of real oranges on stage. Not since Vanessa Redgrave stole a scene at the Theatre Royal Haymarket many years ago has the orange been used to such good effect. Poor Ntshoma had to perform an extended scene with no chance to wipe his hands, Phil, who has a Howard Hughes type obsession with hand washing (especially after handling an orange) could only extend his sympathy and admiration as he was restrained by Andrew from actually leaping onto the stage to profer a wet one.

When it all finished at bang on 90 minutes – well done boys we love you even more for that – Andrew was on the verge of giving a standing ovation. This time it was Phil doing the tugging as he hissed:” We only do that for Eartha Kitt”.

Financial footnote: £10 Travelex seats and programes just £1.50. You can’t say fairer than that for a night out.

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