Sizwe Banzi Is Dead
While a new production of Samuel Beckett's early 60s classic Happy Days, starring Juliet Stevenson, is currently gracing the main house at the Young Vic, the Maria studio there is now offering another slice of theatrical history with a production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead. Both coincidentally received their original UK premieres at the Royal Court exactly ten years apart, in 1962 and 1972 respectively.
Both productions prove just how essential the Young Vic has now become in allowing old plays to have new life breathed into them by fresh young talent. While Happy Days is the work of the fast-emerging Natalie Abrahami, who previously co-ran the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill with Carrie Cracknell, Sizwe Banzi introduces an even newer name Matthew Xia, who last year won the Genesis Future Directors Award run by the theatre.
And opening on the very day that the Young Vic's artistic director David Lan was announced as consulting artistic director for the new Performing Arts Centre that is being built at New York's World Trade Center site, it is also a striking testament to the kind of internationally flavoured work that the theatre specialises in.
Last seen in London when its original actors (and co-devisers) John Kani and Winston Ntshona reprised it at the National, Sizwe Banzi has been returned to being a young man's play, performed with a strikingly inhabited sincerity and feeling by Sibusiso Mamba in the title role of a man who shakes off his old identity to assume a new one entirely, and Tonderai Munyevu as a professional photographer who aids and abets the scheme to enable him to stay in New Brighton, Port Elizabeth.
Far from being an old theatrical artifact set in apartheid-era South Africa, the play pulses with fresh drama and asks enduringly pertinent questions about whether we are defined by the names in our passports (or passbooks in this case, referring to the identity papers that black South Africans were forced to have) and the permissions that come with them.
The two superb actors give it comic grace and deep feeling, under the expert guidance of director Xia.