Review: Sizwe Banzi Is Dead/medEia ~ theatre notes

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Review: Sizwe Banzi Is Dead/medEia

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.


Unknown said...

it struck me that, in addition to the humorous and effective story telling you describe, Dood Paard were also doing something very interesting at quite a deep level - a kind of structural-theatrical interrogation of the nature of action (what it is and means to act, or not act; to be unable to act; to see but not act) and within that, the act of expression (to speak or not to speak). maybe it's just that i'm a little obsessed with tongues and eyes as symbols at the moment. but ideas of action and non-action constantly fascinate me as an 'actor', and the piece certainly left me pondering these things from new angles.

of course, as you point out, any such highfalutin aspirations were always executed with a delightfully astringent humour (which, if I knew more about the place, I would say was 'very Dutch'. but i don't so i won't). i loved that each of the three actors at some point said 'i'm no actor'.

i wonder if you had any sense of this. what, for example, did you make of the slide projections? i'd love to get my hands on the text - so clearly devised by the actors, suffused as it was with their wonderful performative (personal?) idiosyncracies.

Anonymous said...

Any chance of this production making it to Sydney? We never get Fugard here, and with a few very good South African actors in town (Sean Taylor, David Ritchie, etc) it's a shame.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Ben - I thought it a really interesting take on classical tragedy, formally speaking. (I might have teased that out a little more if I had more energy - nine shows since last Thursday and Ms A is a bit tired - but boy, am I having a good time!) Ancient tragedy is all about the act. Medea's fatal act is to fall in love with Jason: all else - the murder of her brother, her exile, Jason's betrayal - follows from that. So there's an irony in the chorus talking about their inability to act, since it's questionable whether the protagonists in a tragedy have choice either. Who can choose? There was all the stuff about passion and rationality and the colonial subtext too. V interesting show.

The Brook show is touring fairly extensively, btw. I'm just not sure if it is heading to Sydney, but it might be.

Anonymous said...

Was it just me or did others find the surtitles for "Sizse" too high up? I was seated near the rear, which in the Merlyn means that you are looking down at the stage at a fairly steep angle. And so when I was looking down at the stage, I couldn't comprehend the surtitles that were high up and when I looked at the surtitles, I only had a vague sight of the actors in the bottom periphery of my vision. The expressiveness and gestures of the actors was a real strength of this but it was very annoying that if I wanted to attend to them, I didn't know what they were saying. Maybe this wouldn't have been a problem is I'd been seated further down. Or maybe I just have just paid more attention in French class when I was in school.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi NTG - I don't know why I didn't mention the surtitles. Maybe because I found them, to my surprise, quite unintrusive. I was in a bit of a panic pre-show as my daughter had swiped the play to read herself and so I hadn't read it (as I had planned to) before seeing it. Thinking over it afterwards, I realised some of that panic came from seeing French plays in France, where obviously no help is given to the linguistically afflicted; so I always want to read the play beforehand. To my surprise, I found the surtitles easy to manage, for me they didn't interfere with watching the performances (I thought they cut the play quite well). I was sitting in the second back row, so it would have been the same angle.

Anonymous said...

If you were seated up in the stratosphere too and weren't troubled, I guess it was just me. Maybe it's something to do with never having seen anything with surtitles before and it was the newness of it. I certainly don't have problems with subtitles in films, in fact I'm usually not even conscious of watching a film with subtitles rather than in English.

Alison Croggon said...

It probably is a question of being used to it. I quite like watching plays in other languages - usually I find it's enough to read the play beforehand, so it's fresh in your mind. One of my peak experiences ever was a Russian version of The Seagull (I totally refused the headphones with simultaneous translations). I once even saw a word-heavy Edward Bond two-hander in French - of which I have around five words - and not only survived, but quite enjoyed, the experience. Given Bond, that's quite a tribute to the production... I usually find surtitles alienating, which is why I was surprised here, I thought they were quite tactfully handled.

David Williams said...

Hi Alison et al,

Just a couple of answers for your questioners. Ben - the text of Dood Paard's Mediea was on sale in the Malthouse foyer, and may still be there this week for their Titus (of which I eagerly await reports, being back home in Sydney now).

And yes Anon, the Fugard is definitely playing in Sydney at the Opera House as part of their 'Adventures' program. Their website will have dates etc. That's where I hope to see the show for myself!


David Williams said...

oh, and for my money Dood Paard's mode of textual delivery was very reminiscent of Forced Entertainment's, especially their works 'Speak Bitterness' (1995) and 'Dirty Work' (1998), both of which are constructed around descriptions of actions that do not occur onstage. Obviously Dood Paard are using this for quite different ends, but the theatrical mode did feel familiar to me. I'll try and post a more thorough response to the show on my blog soon.

But given I know as little about the Dutch sensibility as Ben does, it could indeed also be 'very Dutch'.

I'm enjoying the reports Alison, even though I found Kagemi so predictable and tedious that I almost completed a project budget throughout it... (Deborah Jones' respectful review in the Australian captures some of my concerns about that work, especially in terms of the music. but that's a tangent. perhaps i was just too hung over and distracted by all the people sitting around me constantly checking the time throughout the performance by turning on their mobile phones...little green glowing clocks - a small dance of their own.)


Alison Croggon said...

Chris Boyd sent me the Brook tour dates, so they're now at the top of the review, where they should have been in the first place.

Thanks for those observations, David, fascinating. I didn't see Forced Entertainment when I was here, and kick myself for it, missed that boat. Yes, I saw Deborah's comments on the music to Kagemi, and she was probably right, but it certainly didn't interfere for me. I'll plead guilty to occasional coarseness of taste. No mobiles around me, thank god.

Ben, I forgot to respond to your question about the slide show. A friend brought it up last night - he didn't like the slide show at all, basically finding it an irritating distraction which took away from the show. I didn't have that reaction at all. Thinking back - last week seems like several years ago - I found myself kind of welcoming the intrusion. It was a kind of assault, the slides so fast that you were continually catching up, and the random nature of the pictures made me construct a narrative despite myself about globalisation, tourism, consumerism, time (the capturing of the transient, how it doesn't work, etc etc) and other things I don't remember now.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting the tour dates. Also i agree with you Alison that the strangeness of surtitles is more than compensated for by earing the texts in their original language. The recent Mali Theatre's production of "Uncle Vanya" was electrifying, to hear the deep sorrowful voices speaking Chekhov's words in Russian was far more powerful than any English translation could have hoped to achieve. the only slight distraction were the three young Russian women behind me who kept muttering their complaints about how the surtitle translations weren't exact!

xofro said...

I'm very sorry that a late work meeting out-of-town made me miss Siswe Banzi (Athol Fugard was a friend of my parents in the 60s but I've rarely seen his plays).

But was very glad to see medEia. Like you, my heart sank when the play opened: I wasn't in the mood for 'that' sort of avant-guard nonsense (I sometimes am...). But I was mesmerised and moved by the production, finding it emotionally overpowering at times. The slide show allowed for reflective breaks in the storytelling - I didn't understand them so just let them wash over me, which might have been the whole point. I looked forward to Titus afterwards.