Sizwe Banzi is Dead (currently playing at the Young Vic) makes an impact from the moment your ticket is torn at the door: sorting and segregating audiences according to race into roped-off seating areas, all under the intimidating glare of a silent guard. And while one has to acknowledge the historical accuracy of such a practice and its relevance in the context of a play about racial inequity in South Africa, it is nonetheless incredibly unnerving, if not shocking, to find yourself in the middle of it – if not accidentally complicit – when on a night at the theatre, making it clear as soon as you’ve taken your seat that Sizwe Banzi is Dead is going to make for an engaging and important journey from start to finish.
Thankfully, in stark contrast to such uneasy beginnings, from the moment Styles (Tonderai Munyevu), steps, beaming, onto the stage, it’s clear we’re in safe hands with Matthew Xia’s confident direction and the bold performances he’s drawn from his cast. Munyevu delivers Styles’s captivating story of his transition from the factory floor at Ford to opening a photography studio with a commendable amount of physical dexterity, pitch perfect comic timing and brief but touching moments of pathos. Indeed, Munyevu’s performance is so packed with infectious life and verve that the audience were collectively leaning forward in their seats so as not to miss a moment.
However, at its midpoint, Sizwe Banzi is Dead cleverly wrong-foots its audiences once again and veers into uneasy territory after we meet Sizwe Banzi (Sibusiso Mamba), who steps into Styles’s studio to have his photo taken. We go on to learn of Sizwe’s own journey up until this point, the story now told as a deft two-hander, Mamba and Munyevus’s performances complementing each other perfectly in order to illustrate the political forces and inequalities at work in South Africa, which call into question a man’s very identity.
It is in this second half that Ciarán Cunningham’s lighting design really comes into its own, guiding the audience from bars to dark alleys to a starkly lit home, pitching the perfect atmosphere for the desperate scenes between Sizwe and Buntu (also played by Munyevu) which develop as Sizwe is faced with a profoundly troubling choice about his future. With such strong performances bolstered by these clever creative decisions, such as Hyemi Shin’s simple and effective mutable set, the story is told clearly and eloquently, allowing the issues the play touches upon to quietly work on the audience and, in the end, really pack a punch when we have really gained the full picture of how and why it is that Sizwe and Styles eventually meet.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead is a colourful and textured piece which offers audiences an ideal blend of storytelling and theatricality, along with a great deal of heart, making it one well worth going to see on its upcoming tour around the UK.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead is playing at the Young Vic until 15 March. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic Theatre website. On national tour from 7 May (co-produced by Eclipse Theatre Company and the Young Vic). Full tour dates on the Eclipse Theatre Company website.