Sizwe Bansi is Dead

A few years ago, I watched a Peter Brook production that inspired my views on theatre… Brook’s work as a director has marked his place as one who left the conventional theatres of the 60’s in search of the fundamental nature of performance space. ‘Simplicity’ is too simple a word to describe the aesthetic: it is not about removing – removing grand stage sets, removing multiple lighting rigs, removing complex costumes. Rather, from his research, it was building what was necessary for a performance experience from the ground up: this led him and his troupe to Iran, Africa, working with native Americans in California, Minnesota and Colorado. “The encounters often revolved around a delicate, shifting balance between the parties. Gone was the duality of the Western theatre, in which a ‘prepared’ troupe expose their work before an ‘unprepared’ public in separate place. Here, in most cases both groups were equally unprepared for what would happen, and the ‘audience’ and ‘performer’ could find themselves exchanging roles.” (“The Open Circle” by Todd and Lecat, p50)

His desire to combine audience and performance was to create an experience, instead of a ‘show’, where a ‘show’ had completely separate worlds confronting each other: “performers with their own ideas, their own convictions, and an audience which is a mixture of people who have got together as though by chance. This has led to an architectural division between audience and performer which one can call the ‘two-room theatre’…The two-room structure is inevitable when there is no deep wish for the experience to be fully shared.” (p33) Brook’s process of performance effectively convert a ‘show’ into an ‘experience’.

In ‘Sizwe Bansi Is Dead’ Brook applies the same mentality. The set is simple: four lights to mark the centre area of the stage, a wooden stool with wheels, folded cardboard boxes (used both as scenery and props), and plats with wheels to act as a coat hanger, or a wall. This set could be set up anywhere, outdoors, indoors, any space. All the action is in the storytelling. Two actors playing multiple parts, sound effects by mouth to construct the atmosphere and environment, it is an exercise in imagination in which the actors lead us. And the audience is warmly welcomed upon the actor’s first appearence. He makes us laugh. There is a moment where a front audience member was threatened by another actor, and we all felt the same tension.

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The story is simple. Read it yourself (it’s by Athol Fugard, he also wrote what inspired the film ‘Tsotsi’). But the experience is an experience, and I cannot explain its magic in words. The only thing that made me feel uncomfortable was the fact that the theatre did not have good subtitling facilities – the actors spoke mostly in French, and although I could follow most of it, looking way UP to the subtitles (which really should be put to the sides of the stage) was slightly annoying. I didn’t feel this last time I saw a Brook play (in Hong Kong the theatre had three subtitling areas so you could always catch the meaning as well as the action at the same time). Not that it really mattered. Like I said, it is all in the action.

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