This revival of South African apartheid era drama Sizwe Banzi is Dead came to the Playhouse Studio following a national tour of the production, which began life at the Young Vic earlier in the year. And it was a return to the city for director Matthew Xia, who recently spent a year at the Everyman and Playhouse as part of the Regional Theatre Young Director Scheme.
It’s one of those pieces that all involved can really get their teeth into. The play was written by Athol Fugard in the early 70s and the finished product was devised with its actors (John Kani and Winston Ntshona). A two-hander, there is an intensity to the piece that remains; it certainly has an atmosphere all its own, and the heat and proximity to the performers up in the Studio space only added to the experience.
In this production, the decision to segregate the audience upon arrival, which has been well-documented and discussed in its national reviews, ended up with some quite heated debates before the play had even begun.
Tonderai Munyevu begins the play as photographer Styles, a contented, vivacious self-made man who tells the story of his life and career. Into the shop comes a customer a bit sketchy with his own personal details; from there, the story is told in flashback as the audience learns what has brought him to this point. The stranger is not Robert as he claims to be, but the titular Sizwe Banzi (Sibusiso Mamba), an out of work grafter facing deportation from the city of Port Elizabeth to his home town, where his wife and children may be, but where there is no work to support them.
Munyevu returns as no-nonsense Buntu, who gives Sizwe a place to stay and, after a macabre discovery, encourages him to swap passbooks – the identity documents that literally mark his cards – with a dead man for the fresh start he will need to keep working in the city. Will he give up his very name for a brighter future? It’s hard to believe, and hard to swallow, that this play deals with relatively modern history and not the problems of 150 years ago.
Themes of identity, masculinity, family and race run throughout in a play all about light and dark, literally and metaphorically. Munyevu’s performance in each of his roles is energetic and thoroughly captivating – easily one of the best of the year so far. Sizwe Banzi is Dead may not be subtle but it is passionate and genuine, and tells a story that demands to be heard.