Sizwe Banzi is Dead
Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1
Nothing But the Truth
The ruinous effects of apartheid are not likely to be forgotten, and the extraordinary output of South African theatre can surely take some of the credit for this. It continued to display political defiance throughout the years of white rule, and is still engaging with the aftermath.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead, currently at the Lyttelton Theatre, is one of the most famous of the so-called "township plays". Devised in 1972 by South Africa's greatest playwright, Athol Fugard, and two of its greatest performers, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, it is essentially a series of overlapping monologues, here performed with the original cast in a production directed by Aubrey Sekhabi.
The play starts with Styles (Kani), who runs a small photographic studio in the Port Elizabeth township of New Brighton. The first half-hour is a grand monologue as Styles takes us through the antics at his former workplace, the Ford Motor Company factory in Port Elizabeth, which one day receives a formal visit from a member of the Ford family. With a great and glorious laugh, Styles mocks the general foreman, Mr "Baas" Bradley, who insists that his black "boys" get into clean overalls and sing as they work, at a slowed-down, humane pace intended to impress the big American boss. Kani, who himself worked at the Ford plant in Port Elizabeth, brilliantly evokes the bustle of the production line and the grim humour of the system. Then he explains how his character managed to leave.
Styles brings members of the audience up out of the auditorium to comment on how delightful his graduation, wedding or family photographs are. He recognises how important the alchemy of photography is to a dispossessed, mobile, oppressed people. Indeed, he calls his studio "a strongroom of dreams". Kani, who has played this role across the world, revels in the big-hearted nature of Styles, but just as you are willing him to tell another story, in walks a man (Winston Ntshona) looking for a photograph to send to his wife.
Gradually the play darkens, showing the whole diabolical construction of apartheid. Yet, for all its Brechtian techniques (keeping the …