Sunday, March 28, 2010

Athol Fugard's The Train Driver

It's really embarrassing to admit this, but the last time I went to see a stage production was when I was still in high school, which was more than a decade ago. What's equally sad is that South Africa has a rich literary heritage, of which I'm missing a vital component because I've been too lazy to go to the theatre.

I've been suffering from ennui for the past few months. To put it mildly, movies bore me. I don't even bother watching telly and, in fact, we don't own an infernal box. When I do see programming on telly, the presenters annoy me. I feel like they're talking down to me as if I'm five years old and have the IQ of a carrot.

What I like about books and what I've come to really appreciate about theatre is that as a reader or viewer, I am not furnished with all the details. When reading or watching plays, I have to make a greater effort to suspend disbelief and there's that magic moment when the words on the page cease to be words but become sensual input my mind interprets. With plays there are some visual and aural stimulus, but as a member of the audience, I have to put in so much more effort to forget that I'm watching actors on stage. Books and plays make a greater impact on my intellect than most films.

Now, to get to Athol Fugard. I first encountered his work during high school, when during Standard 8 (Grade 10) we studied The Road to Mecca, Fugard's dramatisation about the life of outsider artist Helen Martins. We also watched the movie based on Fugard's play starring Kathy Bates, and I was, even as a nasty little teen, blown away by the scope of his work and the way I engaged with his characters.

A good decade and a bit later, a good friend of ours told us about a new theatre in the Cape Town CBD... The Fugard Theatre, in Caledon Street.

If you're in Cape Town, I totally recommend making an effort to rather support our local actors than some of the schlock released by Hollywood. The building itself is one of the city's historical gems and, for many years the space was just used as a warehouse. The present owners have maintained that sense of old but have renovated beautifully, with an almost rustic feel. And as far as small theatres go, this one is pretty darn big without losing that precious sense of intimacy.

I am so going back.

Fugard's latest play, The Train Driver worked for me from the start. Using only two characters, traumatised train driver Rudolf Visagie (Sean Taylor) and gravedigger Simon Hanabe (Owen Sejake), Fugard effortlessly presents two men who encapsulate the cultural differences present in contemporary South Africa.

“This may be the most important one I’ve ever written as far as I’m concerned for personal reasons,” says Athol.

I agree that this is a very important work, especially for those who are curious about post-apartheid South Africa. This is a harrowing story but when I walked out of the theatre I felt somehow recharged, that even in some of the darkest emotions present in our beautiful land, something precious can be found and carried out into the world to transform the people who take the message to heart.

This play is a powerful commentary on society and, if you ever have the opportunity to see this on stage, go see it. You won't be disappointed.


  1. Very interesting.

    The only Athol Fugard I've ever seen (and later read) was the play televised on HBO: Master Harold and the Boys.

    Powerful stuff, I thought.

    Never had time to find any of his other works (oh, pooh, let me be honest--not motivated back then) but sometime in the future I will.

  2. Oh goodness... the list of books, poems and plays I SHOULD be reading is not funny. I keep hearing my English teacher say, "You know, you're not stupid..." (Implying that I waste my time with genre fiction.)

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  4. I've seen two plays by Fugard staged live: Sizwe Banze is Dead and Master Harold and the Boys. In one case, I knew all the actors.