From Socialist Voice, September 2010


Sizwe Bansi Is Dead

In 1972 Athol Fugard’s great anti-apartheid play, Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, was touring Britain, and I was asked by the then general manager of the Abbey Theatre, John Slemon, to go to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield to see if it would be suitable to put on in the Peacock Theatre for one night.
     I travelled over to Sheffield, saw it in their Studio Theatre, and was absolutely rocked by the performances of Winston Natsona and John Kani, the writing of Athol Fugard, and the power, simplicity, warmth and tragedy of the play, which exposed the horror of attempting to live a normal life in an abnormal, repressive state.
     Winston Natsona and John Kani were then (and still are) two of South Africa’s greatest actors, and in 1972 they portrayed the reality of what black South Africans had to endure under that horrific white apartheid government.
     I returned to Dublin and told Tomás Mac Anna, artistic director of the Abbey Theatre, and John Slemon that we must put it on the Abbey stage. This they agreed to instantly. The theatre was sold out in three days, and that Sunday evening performance was one of the most electric, emotion-filled nights I ever experienced in a theatre. It was funny, moving, tragic, and utterly gripping. The audience were stunningly supportive and completely identified with the African struggle against oppression. A bravo-laden standing response at the curtain call was given to the two actors. They were both subsequently interviewed in the Guardian (London) after the tour was finished, and they remarked that the night in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin was the highlight of that tour.
     I’m reminded of those events as I am about to go to South Africa in September to visit John Slemon and to see the country where Athol Fugard’s play and Winston Natsona’s and John Kani’s performances helped to bring down that poisoned state.

• Rud eile: Strike, that wonderful play by Tracy Ryan about the Dunne’s Stores workers who refused to handle South African goods, will be revived in the Samuel Beckett Theatre, TCD, and the Axis in Ballymun from 26 October—an equally powerful theatrical experience.

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