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Sizwe Banzi is Dead (NT)

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#1 Guest_Skylight_*

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Posted 20 March 2007 - 10:50 AM

I don't know if we have heroes anymore but if we do then John Kani is one of mine so I went with incredibly high expectations and, having experienced a few let downs recently, I'm pleased to say my expectations were not only met but exceeded. For me, the Kani/Ntshona pairing is one of the most energising, entertaining and, I'll have to use this phrase because I can't think of a better one, life enhancing forces to be experienced, and I don't just mean in the theatre. Kani is the more obvious showman but this is clearly a pairing and the longevity of their double act lends a simultaneous power and pathos to their work that few other performers could hope to achieve.

I won't tell you the story if you don't know it as, while this is a play that documents the large issues: justice, freedom, what is the value of human life and human relationships, it is also a narrative about an individual man and a decision that he has to make.

Kani and Ntshona's performances are a masterclass in how to communicate with an audience. Kani in particular has the opportunity to shine by opening the piece and by portraying two diverse creations. Just as you think the smiley, gregarious, optimist Styles is him, he switches to the more guarded, desperate Buntu. Where Styles is consumed by hope; Buntu has fear. And yet, because even within the simplicity of the basic narrative all the characters are fully developed, it is Buntu who is responsible for the change at the end. Ntshona captures something of the same range within his single character. He begins with an almost music hall style comedy act, as he portrays 'Robert' having his photograph taken, but his moments in the spotlight, writing to his wife as his story is revealed, demonstrate his depth as an actor.

I am aware that not everyone will like these performers or this show. At the end, I overheard two young women talking about the play. They clearly didn't enjoy it and one said to the other "it's very dated; I didn't feel that I learnt anything". Factually perhaps they are right about the dated aspect, after all 'Sizwe', and its in many ways companion piece 'The Island', won the actors Tony awards over thirty years ago. Factually it is a play about an apartheid South Africa which no longer exists. It is just possible that those young women were not even born when de Klerk and Mandela began to create a world in which apartheid would be just history. Maybe an understanding of the period contributes to one's engagement with the play. Maybe it adds something if one is aware of the importance of names in African culture. But the play is only dated if one fails to see the humanity at the heart of it. Just as you don't have to be a sixteenth century Jew to be moved by the Merchant of Venice or a lion to be engaged by the opening moments of the Lion King, you don't have to be South African or black or male or a factory worker to get the point about temporarily improving the working environment for a visit from the big cheese (replace Henry Ford with Ofsted and it's about twenty first century London). You don't have to be South African or black or male or a photographer to understand the value of family photographs, or memories or dreams. And it isn't a lecture so there's no reason to expect to learn anything from it. Perhaps these young women were trying too hard to read something into what is after all a play not a political campaign.

As a play it works on many levels and in Britain in our twenty first century largely middle class society it's up to each individual to take from it what they want. This is a play that has worked in South Africa and on Broadway. These are actors who are used to speaking to a variety of audiences. If you don't like the politics then go for the performances. There is something incredibly moving about knowing that these tremendous actors have lived through the scenarios they describe, that they were telling these stories as young men and they are still telling them now as they approach old age, in knowing that the world has changed around them immeasurably and yet the truth at the heart of the tale remains. Yes this is a play about one place and one time but like the best works of art, those that survive beyond their own time and resonate down the ages, it is also about, hate, love, death, life, hope, fear, faith, despair, subjugation, freedom, and the overwhelming self preservation instinct of the human spirit.

#2 Backdrifter


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Posted 20 March 2007 - 11:22 AM

I almost randomly opted for the Peter Brook production at the Barbican, which I'm seeing next month. I saw Kani perform Nothing But The Truth at the Hampstead last month, which I enjoyed.
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#3 Guest_Skylight_*

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Posted 20 March 2007 - 11:29 AM

Well if you haven't seen the Kani/Ntshona one before I recommend it and it's Travelex. The Peter Brook one is in French isn't it?  Really wish I'd seen Nothing But The Truth; I've heard it on the radio but I just couldn't fit it in.  sad.gif

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