Sizwe Banzi returns to Exeter nearly 50 years after first performance in city

In 1972, the powerful South African apartheid drama Sizwe Banzi is Dead made its debut at the Space Theatre in Cape Town. This thought-provoking play, created by Athol Fugard, John Kani, and Winston Ntshona, went on to captivate audiences at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1973 before embarking on a UK tour. One notable stop on that tour was the University of Exeter’s Drama Department.

We caught up with Nigel Cutting, an arts manager who, as a second-year student at the University of Exeter during that time, played a pivotal role in staging Sizwe Banzi is Dead in Exeter.

In this special guest Northcott Story, Nigel shares his insights on how the show found its way to Exeter, its reception back then, and why it remains relevant today.

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Nigel Cutting on staging Sizwe Banzi in 1970s Exeter

In the academic year 1973/74, I was a second-year student at Exeter University, and took up the voluntary post of Arts Co-Ordinator, which had a modest budget from the Student Union. In this capacity, I made contact with a member of the Northcott’s administrative team. At this time the Royal Court Theatre in London was presenting the original production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, on tour from the Market Theatre of Johannesburg. The production received huge acclaim and the Court offered it out on tour to regional theatres, including the Northcott, following its London run. The Northcott was unable to take the show as the theatre was already committed to something else for the dates on offer, but my Northcott contact got in touch with me and asked if I would like to present the show at the University of Exeter. I said yes, and put it on in what was then used as the university’s drama studio.

Two Exeter Northcott Theatre programme flyers from the 1973 and 1974.
Northcott programmes from the early 1970s.
A photography studio with brown wood panel walls. Left to right - John Pfumojena (Bunto), wearing a blue shirt and multiple fedora hats, piggybacks on Wisdom Iheoma (Sizwe Banzi), wearing a beige suede jacket and a grey jumper.
Sizwe Banzi is Dead 2023 rehearsals. Photo by Craig Fuller.

It was a great show and it sold out every performance. A winning combination then and ever since. Moreover, it was extremely simple to stage, so there was very little to get wrong, technically, which, as an inexperienced producer, helped. All I really had to do was to make sure I got it the audience it deserved, which I did.

When I left university and decided I wanted to pursue a career in arts management, the fact that I had solid experience of presenting professional arts work of international importance certainly helped me to get started in my career. I was 20 when I put on Sizwe Banzi, and the fact that I had done this would have made me stand out from the crowd when applying for jobs. Sometime during that year, I also put on a music and literature event which featured, among others, the Cornish poet Charles Causley.

Sizwe Banzi remains important now partly because of its history – it is a powerful reminder of the world of apartheid, and a people struggling to shake off that oppression. But it’s not merely a period piece. It is an artfully created play which is all the more effective because it doesn’t simply preach, seethe and mourn. It is at times flat out funny, and the humour only helps to engage the audience in the serious messages which it contains.

Left to right - John Pfumojena (director) kneels down behind a wooden table and laughs with Anna Coombs (Associate Director).
Sizwe Banzi is Dead 2023 rehearsals. Photo by Craig Fuller.

What a brilliant story, thanks Nigel! We can’t wait to hear what you think of John Pfumojena’s new re-imagining of Sizwe Banzi is Dead, which audiences can catch at our city centre Barnfield Theatre between 16 – 17 October.

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