Reviewing John Kani in his play Nothing But The Truth last month, I wrote of the phenomenal dignity he exudes onstage. This is true even when he is bantering in forthright terms with the audience, almost clowning, as in the first half-hour of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, the play that he and Winston Ntshona created with Athol Fugard in South Africa in 1972, and that Kani and Ntshona have brought back to London for a fortnight as part of the NT’s Travelex £10 season. Kani’s character here may be an unpretentious township photographer, but he also knows that his pictures make real his clients’ dreams and show them as their own people, in contrast to the reality of a country where every black man is a white person’s “boy”, or, worse, a ghost.
There may be all kinds of other oppression in the world today, but it is hard to grasp the pervasive subjugation of South Africa’s “pass laws” that regulated where the black majority could and could not move. The play’s thesis is simple: in order to stay where there is employment, Sizwe Banzi takes over the pass book and thus the identity of a dead man, and so “Banzi” dies. There is some debate about the importance of identity versus the brute necessities of life under apartheid, but the radicalism of the idea no longer communicates itself to a 21st-century British audience. Kani’s co-star Ntshona, too, looks wizened where once he was impish; 35 years on, it is hard to believe in him as a man of Banzi’s working age.
In many ways, then, this is heritage theatre. But what heritage! The mere fact of Ntshona and Kani working with Fugard was a proud act of defiance in 1972, never mind their creating plays that spoke so directly of the iniquities of the apartheid regime. History has, thank heaven, changed the tone of the testimony that the play now gives in performance, but that testimony remains strong and important. There may no longer be a visceral charge of right-on-ness for trendy liberal viewers, but sometimes it is a downright honour to be under the same roof, present at the same event.
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