Sizwe Banzi is Dead is one of the most vibrant plays by South Africa’s most prestigious playwright, Athol Fugard. In Peter Brook’s Theatre des Bouffes du Nord production, visiting The Pit Theatre at the Barbican, I felt much of the humour and life was squeezed out of the play. Brook is know to like spare production values, but he is not usually noted for his brevity, this time however, the version of the play his actors speak is much shorter than the published and normally performed version. Whilst abridgement may work in some cases, messing with Fugard’s hardly overlong play, making it into a 70 minute piece, is disastrous.
I should explain that I saw the recent production of this play at The National Theatre. That version (from Capetown’s Baxter Theatre) starred John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who also co-devised the play with Fugard. Seeing these men playing the roles was brilliant, I realised that they were perhaps too old now, but it felt right, and their age an their struggle as Black South Africans meant something. More brilliant than their performance though was the play, the humour and vibrancy of the story shines through. And the story is a simple one, one black man tell us about how he came to become a photographer after working for Ford, another, a customer of the photographer, tells us how Sizwe Banzi came to be dead. The story brilliantly encapsulates the despicable injustices of the apartheid regime, and the powerlessness of black people in the face of the system.
Brook’s production (in French) cuts nearly all of the humour, and much of the descriptive element of the play, and I just can’t stop asking why. The play is still funny and vital, but that is not thanks to the cuts. Habib Dembele (as the photographer) and Picho Womba Konga (as Sizwe), are decent enough actors, bringing more physicality to the roles than the pairing at the NT, but emotion can often seem over the top and oddly flat in this staging. I certainly felt, despite the much smaller space, much less engaged with the action. Maybe I have too high expectations from Brook, having enjoyed the last 3 or 4 productions he has brought to this country, and never having felt that they were emotionally fake. Unfortunately this Sizwe just doesn’t have the punch that the play should posses.