Friday 31 March 2017

The Train Driver seeks solace & redemption
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)
Train driver Roelf (Paul Herbert) and gravedigger Simon (Pasi Clayton Gunguwo) read the news report of a woman who suicided by jumping in front of Roelf's train outside Cape Town. She and her infant's bodies were never claimed at the district morgue.
Photo by Nancy Caldwell
From the footlights : Two actors, one primary voice. An Afrikaans train driver, traumatized by a black woman with an infant strapped to her back who jumped onto the tracks in front of him. The train driver Roelf Visagie is beset with grief and guilt. He finally stumbles across a black squatter's camp where nameless folk are buried in hopes of finding her grave. There he encounters lone gravedigger Simon Hanabe. Roelf tries desperately to disencumber his soul to Simon about what part of the collective guilt as a South African white he suffers over its apartheid past. Not to mention his personal guilt as the driver of the death train.

How the play came to be :  The play by Athol Fugard stemmed from a 2000 newspaper report he read in the Cape Town weekly Mail and Standard about a woman and her three children whom she herded onto the tracks so all would die. Fugard was subsequently interviewed in Cape Town by Celia Duggar of the New York Times in March, 2010 about his play The Train Driver set to premiere there. The article was titiled, aptly, "Driving Out Apartheid's Ghost".  (N.B. As noted in BLR's review of Valley Song, the correct Afrikaans pronunciation of the word apartheid says it all about the intent of South Africa's racist political policy : apart-hate.)

Fugard told the Times "I cannot fathom a darkness so deep that a human being can finally say 'There is no hope'."  The play was written, he said, as a symbolic, metaphorical act of "claiming" the memory of the desperate woman from the Cape Town squatter's camp who suicided 10 years earlier, one Pumla Lolwana. But all his plays in fact aim "to claim people," he said, "to not allow them to pass on into oblivion, trying to bear witness." (Simon's second job is to protect the "sleeping" from packs of feral dogs who are ravenous and want to eat their remains. These, the nameless ones never claimed from the morgue, not even mamas who had babies in tow.)  

To affirm his artistic intents Fugard shared with the Times a letter sent him by an American theatric friend from L.A., Stephen Sacks. Sachs wrote to Fugard that his oeuvre represents "a life long internal struggle" about being of Boer heritage during the apart-hate years. "White guilt," Sachs said, "white shame. Digging up the bones of the nameless black dead. Trying to make sense of it. Give it meaning." He meant it endearingly, not laying on guilt or sarcasm.

What the show brings to the stage :  Empathy can result from the act of stepping into another's shoes and walking their journey a bit. But probably not possible, say, for Auschwitz survivors to do vis-a-vis their Nazi deathcamp guards. Analogously, playwright Fugard is betimes assailed by critics for focusing so much on white S.A. guilt rather than shining more light on the plight and the experience of the country's blacks. Not a "theft of voice" issue in the least. Rather a bio-racial impossibility. 

Thus the show that results. Focused more on Roelf's agonies than Simon's repression. There is more dramatic monologue and soliloquy by Roelf than actual dialogue with Simon, but enough of both to make it all work. Train driver Visagie -- its Latin loosely meaning "look at us" -- tries ardently, anxiously to get his soul closer to guru Adyashanti's timeless challenge : "No more battle against yourself. No more battle with life. No more battle with others. No more battle with God."

But expiation and atonement don't ever come easily. Roelf (Paul Herbert) is possessed by the death of the woman he calls Red Doek. That name he's given this unknown woman because of the red scarf he spotted her wearing just before the locomotive crushed her and her infant babe strapped to her back. That image continues to haunt and plague and obsess him, keep him up night after night, give him tremors and wicked painful dreams. His dreams cause him to terrorize his family at Christmastime shortly after Red Doek's horrific death. Mom locks the kids behind her bedroom door. 

Gravedigger Simon Hanabe (Pasi Clayton Gunguwo) fears for Roelf's safety as the lone white in the desperate squatters' shantytown cum graveyard. Teen-age gangs from the tin-&-paper shacks next door will surely cause trouble, he frets. Still he is a kindly chap and provides a sounding board for Roelf's doleful cries and protests to bounce off of. Vintage stuff. Trying to plea bargain his people's sordid and shameful past Athol Fugard has been doing -- prolifically -- since 1956 : The Train Driver is his 35th play script.

Acting pin-spots : Background reading about The Train Driver from productions elsewhere did not prepare me sufficiently. I got considerably more from the UPV tonight than I had anticipated would be up for offer. 

What no review or Fugard interview prepared me for was the anger train driver Roelf Visagi felt at his nameless victims. He storms into the Shukuma burial ground outside Port Elizabeth once he learns from the district mortician that his victims were buried there just a month before.

He is hyperventiling : "I want to swear at her and let her know she is a piece of black shit. So her ghost will hear me, so she'll know how she has fucked up my life, the selfish black bitchHelp me!" he demands of the threatened and bemused gravedigger. Director Adam Henderson in his notes makes a seemingly paradoxical observation that may be true here : "It is hard not to despise someone you know you have wronged. I think we struggle (even if unconsciously) with this dissonance between our self-image and our history."

Reolf then collapses on the sandy, rocky burial turf and emits agonized cries that go on & on & on & on. His performance in this, right at my feet, was more convincing & true-to-life despair than I believe I have ever witnessed on any Vancouver stage in 40 years. By the end of the play, meanwhile, he has softened and mellowed and is beginning to embrace Adyshanti's challenge. Simply superb, sustained character acting by Mr. Herbert, a previous Jessie nominee.

For his part, Mr. Gunguwo's two most priceless moments were his giddy description of catching the beeg fish with his two dogs when he was a kid. Also the lullaby his mama sang to him "Toola, mama, toola, toola mama...!" that he sings to soothe Reolf's tortured and confused and wondering self along with its accompanying voodoo-esque dance.

A word or two on the production : Three minor bickers with the show. (1) My customary kvetch that Vancouver actors shout-out and and overemphasize swear words. Gosh, if only they'd effen learn this [instead of effen learn this...]. (2) While just 75 minutes of dramatic action in the entire play, inexplicably there was a 15 minute intermission some 50 minutes along into the piece. The break should be axed to preserve the dramatic arc & energy Fugard intended. (3) Why the choice to have most of Simon's final two-minute soliloquy done by recorded play-back while he stands mute on an overturned bucket. This made no dramatic sense to me -- it was gimmicky & distracting. 

Still, mere quibbles each and every point raised here.
Director Henderson's casting choices and staging of his 2-man troupe were otherwise keenly done.

Who gonna like : When the esteemed Mr. Fugard told the NYT his entire career was intended to crescendo and climax with this script, he was spot on. The Train Driver projects powerful pain that attempts to extinguish itself at first through rant and rage but, ultimately, finds a bit of redemption. Redemption that starts through the recognition of what sheer untempered futility looks like in the few final seconds you stare at it face-to-face. And to acknowledge your role in creating that life-ending futility and hopelessness that you at last recognize. 

These are gripping, moving moments of small-stage theatre that are rich & compelling and find Fugard, no question, at his finest.

Particulars :  Written by Athol Fugard.  Produced by The United Players of Vancouver. At their home venue the Jericho Arts Centre, 1675 Discovery Street.  From March 24-April 16.  Tickets & schedule information via 604.224.8007, Ext 2 or CLICK HERERun-time 90 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.

Production team :  Director Adam Henderson.  Set Designer John R. Taylor.  Properties Designer and Producer Linda Begg.  Technical Director and Lighting Designer Michael Methot.  Sound Designer Zakk Harris.  Costume Designer Catherine E. Carr.  Stage Manager Maria Denholme.  Technical Manager Ryan Yee.  Assistant Director Alan Brodie.  Sound Assistant Aya Yuhura. United Players of Vancouver Artistic Director Andree Karass.

Performers : Pasi Clayton Gunguwo (Simon Hanabe, gravedigger).   Paul Herbert (Reolf Visagie, seeker).


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