Sizwe Banzi Is Dead – review

Young Vic, London
This still-relevant revival gifts Fugard, Kani and Ntshona's 1972 play with terrific performances

Mr Styles is in the memorial business. A photographer living near Port Elizabeth in apartheid-era South Africa, he sees it as his job to take photographs of all those black women and men whose lives would otherwise go unrecorded and be lost to history. Beneath his sunny exterior and nifty sales techniques, he's bit of a philosopher, knowing that "this world and its laws allow us nothing except ourselves. There is nothing we can leave behind when we die, except a memory of ourselves."

But sometimes you must die so you can live – and that's the case with one of his customers, whose story is told in this devised play created by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona in 1972. In Matthew Xia's revival, the segregation of the audience by race as we enter the theatre is a reminder of the brutalities of the apartheid regime. The paradox of Sizwe Banzi's life is that it is only by faking his death and taking someone else's name has he any chance of survival in a country that limits freedom of movement and work opportunities for its black citizens.

The play is oddly constructed and baggy, but its simplicity should not be mistaken for a lack of sophistication, and its continuing relevance will be apparent to anyone who reads a newspaper and knows that the legacy of apartheid means that equality between black and white is still far away. There are terrific and terrifically engaging performances from Sibusiso Mamba as Sizwe Banzi, and Tonderai Munyevu as both Styles and the ingenious Buntu, who sees a way to give Banzi the human dignity that every man and woman deserves.

Save 20% on tickets to see the show on tour.

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Lyn Gardner

The GuardianTramp

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