Melbourne Festival #4
Sizwe Banzi Is Dead by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, directed by Peter Brook. Adapted into French by Marie Helene Estienne. Lighting design by Phillipe Vialatte. With Habib Dembélé and Pitcho Womba Konga. Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, until October 27. Geelong (GPAC October 30-31), Bendigo (The Capital, November 2-3), Adelaide (Festival Centre November 6-17), and Sydney (Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, November 26 to December 16).
medEia, devised and performed by Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker. Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse, Melbourne, until October 20. Bookings: 9685 5111.
Over the past couple of years, the Melbourne Festival program has copped a lot of flak for its supposed “elitism” and lack of interest in “ordinary” people. These criticisms emerge from a popular – if not very accurate – assumption that innovative art places itself, by its very nature, above the common herd.
So it’s fascinating to see that a major preoccupation emerging in the festival’s first week is one of the most ancient and popular arts of all – that of story telling. All the theatre I’ve seen, from Barrie Kosky’s uncompromisingly brilliant realisation of The Tell-Tale Heart to stand-up comic Daniel Kitson’s charming C-90, is about telling stories.
We tell each other stories for many reasons: to confirm our identities, to amuse each other, to understand and question the world. Most of all, story-telling asserts a sense of community, inviting us to consider not only the differences between us, but what we have in common. It is, crucially, how we build relationships with one another.
This is something the South African playwright Athol Fugard understands profoundly. The other thing he understands is the primacy of the actor in what he called “the pure theatre experience“. “The ingredients of this experience are very simple,” he wrote. “They are: the actor and the stage, the actor on the stage.”
It’s very easy to see the attraction of Fugard’s writing to an actor-centred director like Peter Brook. And Brook’s production of the first of Fugard’s famous Statement plays, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, is an exemplary demonstration of how performance and text can be united into the third thing that is theatre.
Athol Fugard wrote his three Statement plays, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, The Island and Statements After An Arrest Under the Immorality Act, in the 1970s, at the height of Apartheid, working from improvisations with the actors who first performed them, John Kani and Winston Ntshona.
They were acts of immediate (and at the time, perilous) political urgency, but Fugard – a theatre writer of sophistication as well as urgency – knows that political writing, if it is to mean anything, has to reach both higher and lower than the banalities of ideology, into the heart and mess of human lives.
So Sizwe Banzi Is Dead eschews any kind of moralising or lecturing. Its richly comic story is simply about the absurdity and tragedy of being Black in an Apartheid state, when every trivial detail of your life is ruled by your Pass Book and identity number.
Sizwe Banzi (Pitcho Womba Konga) has arrived in New Brighton from the country, seeking work to support his family, who are not allowed to move to town with him. But his residency rights are revoked when he is arbitrarily arrested in a raid.
When he and his friend Buntu (Habib Dembélé) discover a dead man in the street, they steal his identity, turning the illegal Sizwe Banzi into the legal Robert Zwelinzima; a move that will work, Buntu tells him, as long as he stays out of trouble.
“A black man stay out of trouble?” responds Sizwe with incredulity. “Impossible, Buntu. Our skin is trouble.” But, as he writes to his wife, “for the time being” his troubles are over, and that, in this world, is enough to ask.
This two-hander is infused with the irrepressible, contagiously subversive humour of the oppressed – it opens with a wonderful shaggy dog story, told by Dembélé, who plays multiple parts, which satirises a visit by the US chief executive to the South African Ford factory. But the play communicates, effectively and movingly, the heavy price of living in a police state.
And it’s impeccably realised. It is performed on a bare stage, on which are placed a number of simple objects – a rubbish bin, bundled piles of cardboard, wardrobe racks. The focus is on the performances, and these are, from the first moment Dembélé appears on stage as the young, mischievous photographer Styles, a rich, utterly seductive pleasure.
It’s deeply detailed work, every tiny gesture opulent with meaning. Dembélé is such a hugely gifted actor that he seems like some kind of magician: in the blink of an eye he transforms before your eyes into an old woman, an old man, a child. Konga, whose identity ironically remains stable as Sizwe Banzi/Robert Zwelinzima, powerfully and touchingly evokes his character’s simple dignity.
Dutch company Dood Paard’s medEia tells an older tale: the story of Medea, who betrayed her own people for the sake of her love for the invader Jason, only to be betrayed in her turn, and who murdered her own sons in revenge.
The spare, direct text has been devised by the performers, Oscar van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker, from Euripides’ original play. Where the ancient Greeks used tropes like “wine-dark sea” to prompt oral memory, the writers have employed a contemporary equivalent: immediately recognisable lines from popular songs prickle the text with sly humour.
For the first few minutes, my heart sank. I wasn’t in the mood for a lot of words. It was – as, in fact, is also true of classical tragedy – quite clear from the beginning what the performance was to be. But it wasn’t long before I found myself riveted: again like classical tragedy, the production has the clean, focused urgency of a single action.
The performers arrange themselves before a wide paper blind. Before them, on the floor, are laid two more blinds. They are successively hoisted up by the actors and then, literally, torn down (you understand swiftly why they are a maze of masking tape), bringing each act of the tale successively closer to the audience.
Medea’s story is told from the point of view of the chorus, those ordinary folk on the sidelines who watch and suffer with the protagonists, but are powerless to influence events. The performers enact, with scant attention to the gender of the actors, the roles of Medea and Jason and Creon as well as the old-woman gossips in the street.
And far from being dull or evasively ironic, this simple retelling is cumulatively powerful: our involvement deepens as the performances animate these ancient passions, until they resonate in our own contemporary language with a new and bitter clarity.
An edited version of this review is published in today's Australian.
Picture: Pitcho Womba Konga (left) and Habib Dembélé in Sizwe Banzi Is Dead. Photo: Pascal Gelly / Agence Bernand Performers
PS: Ms Pedant (recklessly ignoring the adage that people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones) notes that the Age's Cameron Woodhead has Sizwe Banzi as "the second" of Fugard's Statement plays. It says so, after all, in the MIAF program (tsk tsk, copywriters). For the record, Sizwe Banzi premiered in 1972, The Island in 1973, and Statements in 1974.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Melbourne Festival #4