Fugard’s Train Driver Crosses the Line
Athol Fugard’s new play is set in a rubbish-strewn graveyard on the outskirts of a Port Elizabeth squatter camp. The narrative is book-ended by two horrific acts of violence. At its conclusion, one of the two characters loses his life and the other his only source of income.
In short, it’s a play about hope.
Gritty, obsessive, hopelessly fragile hope, extracted painfully from the harsh reality of the South African experience by an author who, by his own admission, is constitutionally incapable of the kind of despair that led a young woman to kill herself and her three children by stepping out in front of locomotive on the railway line between Philippi and Nyanga in December 2000.
Reading about this awful event in the Mail & Guardian clearly touched a nerve deep in Fugard’s pain centre. In an on-stage question-and-answer session after a preview of the play, he said:It was one of those moments – and I‘ve had many of them in the course of my life – that I immediately recognized I had an appointment with, something which I felt I would be compelled to write about. I made my first attempt about a year later, as I tried to find the form in which I could put the story. I considered prose, I considered a play and for several months I sat with the story and eventually gave up for the simple reason that I was focussing on the story of Pumla, and I realised that she was veiled in such a darkness that I couldn’t penetrate it… so I abandoned the story. But I couldn’t let go of it and after some time passed, it eventually came to me that there was one way in which I could, maybe, approach that horrendous moment, and that was by way of the train driver. He is a white South African. I am a white South African. He is ignorant of a lot of things about other people. I am ignorant of a lot of things about other people. He’s got his share of prejudice. I’ve got my share of prejudice. There were bridges between me and this fictional character, the train driver, who I eventually decided to call Roelf Visagie, and that is how the play eventually came to me.
Traumatized out of his comfortable suburban existence, Roelf Visagie embarks on a voyage of discovery that starts out in anger and resentment but leads eventually to an understanding, or at least to an acceptance, of the indelible bond that has been created between him and the unknown victim on the tracks, whom he dubs Red Doek. Observing the patient spiritual pragmatism of Simon Hanabe, the gravedigger who sings the restless ghosts of the unnamed dead back to sleep when the township dogs threaten to dig them up, Roelf learns about the role ritual has to play in creating a sense of meaning for the living, regardless of what it might mean to the dead. And the final act of closure for Roelf is also suggested by Simon.
However, the journey that takes him out of his safe, white world, to a place in which he encounters a deep and simple friendship with Simon, also exposes him to a danger that will tear him apart. Cruelly, in the very act of coming to terms with Red Doek’s death, he meets his own. “Why does he have to die?” asked a member of the audience. Fugard replied:
The answer is simply that for thousands of South Africans, daily, they live with the danger of explosive acts of violence…. Violence out of all proportion to what precedes it. That is a reality – and the fact that you might have had an epiphany, a moment of understanding, a state of grace – that is no protection from it happening it to you… Hijackings, murder, violence, it’s a daily reality, particularly for people living in the townships. In my white suburban existence, I get a little nervous sometimes, and feel the threat of it in certain situations, but that’s nothing compared with what must be the reality of it for people living in the squatter camps.
The play, which premiered on 24 March in Cape Town’s new theatre, The Fugard, takes the form of a classic Fugard two-hander, reminiscent of Blood Knot, The Island and Sizwe Banzi is Dead. The slow, fractious ‘Odd Couple’ friendship that develops between Roelf and Simon is the mainspring of the action - warm, funny and moving - but it’s a relationship hardly acknowledged as such at first by the near hysterical white man, played by fresh-out-of-Australia, Sean Taylor.
At the preview performance, Taylor still seemed to be struggling to come to terms with the exact pitch of the man’s trauma, as well as his lower-class Afrikaans background, and teetered dangerously close to caricature.
Owen Sejake, however, gave one of those rare performances so perfect in every gesture, mannerism and syllable that his utterly credible presence seemed to ground Taylor, and the later dialogue developed superbly as the two characters gradually get to know each other, confronting the neighbouring strangeness of each other’s cultures, and their common humanity on the edge of the grave, in a way that – to this nation’s crying shame – is still so rare as the inertia of apartheid is reinforced by the prejudices of the new South Africa.
So for Fugard, clearly, a luta continua. As he said in concluding the Q&A session:
I thought when Nelson Mandela walked out of jail that I was going to be South Africa’s first literary redundancy – maybe I am for all I know! But I do know that instead of drying up, I found that as the reality of the new South Africa unfolded, as one saw the AIDS pandemic run rampant and kill thousands and thousands, when one sees how impotent our attempts were to do anything about Zimbabwe, and the corruption in high places, I found myself dealing with a reality different in many ways but in some ways very akin to the one I had to face when I was in apartheid South Africa.
No, Mr Fugard, the voice of conscience will never be redundant. Especially in South Africa. And especially when it has been raised as honestly – and as poignantly – as yours has been for the last five decades. Thank you.