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London Theatre Reviews

Owen Sejake and Sean Taylor/ Ph: Alastair Muir



Athold Fugard draws on his South African background in this bleak, Beckettian journey.

Athold Fugard falls into that rare category of dramatists whose plays opposed their country’s totalitarian regime. With the likes of Brecht (Nazi Germany) and Havel (communist Czechoslovakia), Fugard (apartheid South Africa) is in good company.
The 78 year old’s latest offering, for which the author has come out of directorial retirement, may be set in his country's post-apartheid era, but it is steeped in apartheid's past. The two-hander was inspired – perhaps a better word is "triggered" – by a 2001 press report about a mother’s suicide. She stepped in front of an oncoming train while holding her three children close. All were killed.
Fugard imagines the bleak, scrubland cemetery in which the woman and, in this version, her one baby were buried. The ground is populated by dead and nameless poor. This is the home and garden of black gravedigger Simon (played by the bear-sized Owen Sejake). It is also the place where white, haunted train driver Roelf (Sean Taylor) angrily searches for the grave of the woman whose death ruined his life.
Over the course of the play’s uninterrupted 80 minutes, these men undergo quietly profound changes. Simon’s suspicion of his uninvited guest gradually turns into a kind of trust; Roelph’s anger against the suicidal woman, into a form of understanding.
It is easy to see why after the play’s world premiere at The Fugard Theatre in Cape Town earlier this year some South African reviewers saw in The Train Driver a comment on their country. For one, there is the poverty and hopelessness of the dead woman’s shantytown life, which Sean says he encountered on his way to the cemetery. Just as relevantly, it is hard to imagine in what circumstances the black woman and the white train driver would meet other than the fatal collision that brought them together. Something similar could be said of Simon and Roelf – two colours of the so-called rainbow nation that normally are still only found on opposite sides of South Africa's social spectrum.
When not railing against the dead woman, Roelf reveals the petty bourgeois trappings of his comfortable existence: the home, the pet dog, the casually racist wife. By contrast, the contents of Simon’s life are all too obvious – the spade, the shack, the bodies, the graves. Apartheid’s legacy hangs like a pall.
But the evening would have packed a much more powerful punch had Fugard’s writing matched the sparse Beckettian landscape of his play. With its dead, twisted tree, Saul Radomsky’s design echoes a Waiting for Godot set. And with the cycle of suspicion and trust, threat and reconciliation, there is something in Fugard’s Simon and Roelf that brings to mind Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, too.
Yet the jabbering Roelf and his self-diagnosis of his condition drives the play to the point where nothing is left to the imagination. The effect not only de-mystifies the play, it de-mythifies it as well. Perhaps what is needed here is some of the subtlety that was imposed on great writers like Fugard by totalitarian regimes.