South Africa’s Baxter Theatre Centre’s production of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead opened at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre on Wednesday (21 March 2007, previews from 19 March) for a strictly limited run to 4 April (See News, 2 Nov 2006).

In the early 1970s, at a time when collaboration between black and white theatre practitioners was the exception in South Africa, John Kani and Winston Ntshona worked with playwright Athol Fugard to create this comic examination of friendship, hope and the nature of identity, as one of many struggles to survive under apartheid.

Now in their sixties, Kani and Ntshona – who recreate their roles 35 years on from their first performance - were last seen at the National in 2002 in The Island (which they also co-wrote with Fugard). The visiting production is directed by Baxter Theatre’s Aubrey Sekhabi.

Overnight critics unanimously hailed the production as a success, some noting how poignant it seems now with the UK government introducing ID cards. They praised the performances of Kani and Ntshona as compelling and amusing, and were impressed by the way the play could change mood within a line of dialogue from jovial and anecdotal to brutal and oppressive.

  • Michael Coveney on (4 stars) – “Sizwe Bansi Is Dead was the outstanding play of the early 1970s, signalling resistance in the townships and trail-blazing creative partnerships between black and white artists, not to mention audiences…. How moving and extraordinary that the same two actors should resume their roles in this visiting production…. Both Kani and Ntshona seem unchanged to me, the one quick and practical, with a glistening stage energy, the other slow-moving and seraphic. Kani is plumper than he was, with one gleaming glass eye, while Ntshona has slimmed down in old age (he’s now 65) without losing the childish innocence of assuming a dead man’s identity so that he can find work and send money home to his family 150 miles away. The structure is anecdotal and circular, with Kani’s opening 40-minute monologue vividly recounting seven years in a Ford factory before opening his own photographic studio in the black quarter of Port Elizabeth…. The play still fires as a hymn to the human spirit, and the performers are an irreducible joy and a wonder to behold.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (3 stars) - “The play acquires an overly carpentered neatness. What gives it its enduring vitality is what Fugard dubbed ‘the assertion of life’ of its two actors. Ntshona, in his outsize white suit and wide-brimmed Bowery Boys hat, cuts an unforgettable figure as he poses for a photograph; and, playing a rural refugee seeking work in Port Elizabeth, he reminds us of the Kafkaesque absurdities of apartheid. What the piece specifically evokes is the permanent sense of entrapment…. Whether he goes to school, church, work, or hospital, he will always be a walking set of numerals; and, without his Native Identity number, he ceases to exist. Though the play attacks a dehumanising political credo, the paradox then and now is that its actors brim with eccentric life. Kani switches easily from the buoyant photographer of the first half, sexily swivelling his hips as he talks of ‘safety precautions’, to a pragmatic survivalist in the second. Ntshona movingly asserts his unquenchable individuality in defiance of the reductive pass laws. But the highest tribute one can pay to Aubrey Sekhabi's Baxter Theatre Cape Town production is that its two performers reveal an energy undimmed by time and their experience of apartheid.”

  • Alice Jones in the Independent (4 stars) - “The two-hander is a comic, touching but fiercely political work about the impossibility of life under apartheid and pass law (which restricted the movement of black South Africans and demanded that they carry a pass book, tracking their movements at all times)…. It is a powerful and universal meditation on identity, where a pass-book number becomes more important than a name, and a photograph becomes the only proof of an existence, as well as a searing indictment of the cruelties and absurdities of apartheid life. Kani and Ntshona, now both well into their sixties, are a pleasure to watch and a perfectly balanced double act. Kani is jovial and robust both as Styles and as Buntu, the local who aids Sizwe. He nimbly hops about the stage, accompanying his speech with mime and belly laughs. In his opening monologue, he fills the vast Lyttelton stage…. Ntshona is also extremely funny and touching. His hugely expressive face is a magnetic draw and he puts in a tour de force turn, swaggering around in his baggy white suit, spitting out orange pips and slurring his words on a drunken night out.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (4 stars) – “The idea of what it means to be a man, to be able to hold one's head high in a world of servility… is the piece's prevailing theme, introduced with initial lashings of humour in Kani's huge opening monologue…. It seems as though Kani might spontaneously combust with enthusiasm, so compellingly does he conjure up a world of joyously vivid characters. It's only with the arrival of a certain Robert Zwelinzima, one of Styles' customers, that we start to understand the malevolent intent of Vorster's surveillance state and its prohibitive pass laws. Ntshona has a wonderfully comical expression, which is perforce deployed less and less, but he does tend to mangle his words, which diminishes the impact of his tale of pass-book woe. He also looks a little old now to be playing a working man with young children. These are trifles, however, compared with the exhilarating brio with which director Aubrey Sekhabi has his actors inhabit the large Lyttelton stage, bare except for a scattering of props. Kani in particular exudes the presence of a whole troupe of performers.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph - “Back in the 1970s, when it was performed in black townships, schools and universities throughout South Africa, the play was a defiant cry of protest and a powerful call to action. But has it anything to say to us now? Emphatically, yes. Like all true art, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead transcends the particular circumstances of its composition. Watching it, the piece powerfully resonated with me, because here in England we seem to be sleepwalking into a system of compulsory identity cards even as the spy cameras keep constant watch on us…. But the piece offers more than potent political theatre. It is, at its deepest level, a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit and a powerful reminder that we must never forget our past…. The writing, and Kani's delivery, have a gripping anecdotal quality. And I love the way the piece only slowly works round to its main story of Sizwe Banzi, who having been denied the chance to work by the white man's law, takes on the identity, and the pass-book, of a dead man. If John Kani is genially commanding, Winston Ntshona brings magic to the stage as Sizwe Banzi, who arrives at the studio to have his photograph taken in an ill-fitting, dazzling white suit.”

  • Sam Marlowe in The Times (4 stars) – “Directed by Aubrey Sekhabi, it’s performed, with extraordinary freshness and vigour, by Kani and Ntshona. It’s a testimony to the uncluttered passion and humanity of the work that it retains such power and potency…. There’s an incredible lightness of touch to the swift switches from humorous anecdotes to accounts of routine brutality or injustice. Most strikingly, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead is suffused with a sense of hope: both the writing and the warm, witty performances of Kani and Ntshona seem almost to glow with it. A courageous work that still captivates.”

    - by Caroline Ansdell