The Pit, London EC2
Opened 9 May
, 2007

It's one of those statistical quirks: sometimes, several productions of the same play crop up in a clump. The RSC is currently showing (though it has not yet admitted reviewers to see) what is England's third flagship-company production of Chekhov's The Seagull in less than a year. In the mid-1990s, it felt as if I were reviewing a new Miss Julie every fifteen minutes or so. In this year's BITE season at the Barbican, director Yukio Ninagawa was prevailed upon not to stage the same Shakespeare as Cheek By Jowl (their Cymbeline opens later this month; Ninagawa opted instead for Coriolanus, seen a couple of weeks ago), and now a production of Sizwe Banzi Is Dead arrives less than two months after another visited the National Theatre.

But talk about clash of the titans: the earlier production of this two-hander starred John Kani and Winston Ntshona, who created the roles and co-wrote the play along with Athol Fugard in 1972, and this second one is directed by Peter Brook, the nearest thing the world of theatre has to a Dalai Lama.

Reviewing the Kani/Ntshona production in March, I called it "heritage theatre" (adding, "But what a heritage"). The apartheid regime and its hated passbooks, which limited black South Africans' movement in their own country, are things of the past. No Sizwe Banzi now needs to steal a dead man's passbook, name and identity in order simply to go where he can find a job. Kani and Ntshona had obviously lived many of the experiences they depicted, and their production evoked that bleak past era.

But Habib Dembélé and Pitcho Womba Konga in Brook's production are not of that era or that region (Dembélé cannot pronounce the characteristic "clicks" of the Xhosa language), nor do they play the piece as such. (It is played in French, with surtitles which consistently misspell both "Banzi" and the surname of the person whose identity Sizwe assumes.) They are clad in contemporary clothes, Dembélé's hair worn in corn rows, and at one point a photographer character advises his subject on striking an assured pose, "Imagine you're Sarkozy [also misspelt!], the new French President." The interpolation may be intended to link the oppression depicted with our contemporary world, but its effect is rather to emphasise the disconnect. In keeping with Brook's minimal "empty space" style, the piece is staged with minimal set and props, so that no particular world is physically evoked; it may as well be fictional.

And then, just as my views on the production were beginning to set firm, one of those moments occurred which make you reassess the entire evening and more. Towards the end of the play (edited here to an economical 70 minutes), Sizwe asks his friend Buntu how long the false identity will work. As long as he stays out of trouble, replies Buntu, for trouble means arrest, fingerprints and thus the truth. But, cries Sizwe, "Our skin is trouble." In this exchange, Dembélé as Buntu was close to tears. I thought this excessive and out of keeping with Brook's avoidance of affectation.

A couple of minutes later, the extent of my mistake was revealed. Throughout the several curtain calls, Dembélé was clearly racked with emotion and was being physically comforted by Konga. This world that I thought alien to the actors, almost fictional, had connected directly and shatteringly with one of the performers even though no such intensity of display was called for – rather, in Brook's productions, it is eschewed in favour of working from the core outwards. And so I am left with a paradox: I continue to feel little urgent impact from this production, but the evidence is also that I am very wrong.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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