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Sizwe Banzi is Dead (Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough)

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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Just at the moment, in what might be termed the early post-Ayckbourn period, audiences at the Stephen Joseph Theatre seem to be getting the best of both worlds. Next month Sir Alan returns, directing his new play, and before that his successor, Chris Monks, is scoring a major success with a very different form of theatre.

For a start, the first in-house production of the Autumn programme, Sizwe Banzi is Dead, is staged not in the round, but in the intimate end-on theatre, the McCarthy. And the play is not typical Scarborough territory, though on reflection the mix of absurdity and realistic detail and the use of humour to explore the darkness within Man are common to both Ayckbourn and Athol Fugard.

Fugard wrote Sizwe Banzi is Dead in the early 1970s with the collaboration of the actors in the original production, John Kani and Winston Ntshona. It is, of course, political theatre, but it’s also very much actors’ theatre, with the use of monologue, role-playing and direct dialogue with the audience.

If the theme is weighty, the plot is slight, offering insights on apartheid from different angles. Styles, a photographer, launches into an extended monologue about his days working at the Ford motor company (the day the big boss came in from the States a comic highlight) and his current career dispensing dreams. When a young man, Robert, enters to have his photograph taken, the plot changes gear, with flashback explaining why Robert has had to shed the identity of Sizwe Banzi.

No less than The Island, Kani and Ntshona’s uplifting play about Robben Island, the play deals with strategies of survival – how to hang on to human identity. Sizwe echoes John Proctor’s “It is my name” before settling for putting food in the mouths of wife and family. Fortunately, as Styles’ monologue reveals, the boss is not always very clever and can be tied up in systems of his own devising.

Chris Monks’ direction is pitch-perfect, built around an outstanding performance from Louis Emerick. As Styles, he is urbane, his old-fashioned courtesy giving way to mature mischief as he acts out his time at Ford or his battle against the cockroaches, a sense of fantasy surfacing as he creates dreams of success. Emerick also doubles effectively as Buntu, Sizwe’s more pragmatic helper. Seun Shote is equally memorable as Sizwe Banzi, illiterate, unworldly, with a great capacity for sudden joy, making much of the striking address to the audience that asserts his manhood and equality.

Sue Condie’s designs make good use of photographic images projected on the drab walls of the set, township jive and a cappella call and response set the mood perfectly and the production holds the attention through a challenging, but entertaining, 105 interval-free minutes.

- Ron Simpson


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