Genius combines in a familiar Athol Fugard idiom
To have two of SA’s best actors in an Athol Fugard face-off on stage is something to cherish. John Kani and Dawid Minnaar are bringing his play The Train Driver to life.
It was first produced at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town in 2010, where it was directed by Fugard. It is a story that might seem without much flesh yet, in the South African context, every sentence is layered with pain and memory. The Train Driver is written in the familiar Fugard idiom, which teases and twists with his tale, coaxes it to unfold and doesn’t take a breath until he deals the final blow.
Director Charmaine Weir-Smith wanted to know if she could relate to the story before accepting this gig and how she honours the text is part of why it unspools with such honesty.
It cuts to the bone, with very little to detract from the pain as there are only two men sharing their stories on the stage. In the past, and still today, two men with different colours on their skin struggle to reach out to each other. The damage wrought by apartheid is too much to bear.
Weir-Smith’s embellishment of the dialogue is a very selective use of music, especially at the end when the most exquisite and heart-wrenching sounds of the Pretoria Palissander Choir sing Ukuthula (Prayer of Peace) to give expression to everything that has happened on stage.
But royal kudos to Kani and Minnaar, who turned this script inside out to tell a story that looks back and to the future with crystal-clear clarity.
Minnaar, as the train driver in search of Red Doek — the woman who stepped in front of his train with a baby on her back — seemingly has the meatier role. And yet it is also Kani as the foil, the one listening with particular intent, who pulls us into the eye of the storm.
It’s an intriguing tug of war, as Visagie is battling his personal demons while Simon is perplexed by this spectacle that is taking over his graveyard. 'There are only black people here,' he says, because that should make the white man go away
As the intruder in this sacred space, Minnaar’s Roelf is completely unaware (as he would be in this context) and simply bulldozes ahead in search of salvation. Kani’s Simon is simply someone who happens to be in this space, but Kani the actor makes sure everyone watching knows exactly how Simon feels about this white man who has crossed so many lines without any knowledge or sensitivity of where he is or what he’s doing.
It’s an intriguing tug of war, as Visagie is battling his personal demons while Simon is perplexed by this spectacle that is taking over his graveyard. "There are only black people here," he says, because that should make the white man go away.
In his unique way, Fugard has always held a mirror to his South African people, in particular by telling a story that he knows we will understand without any explanation.
Roelf (or Roelfie as Simon prefers calling him) has walked into no man’s land because of the colour of his skin but he also endangers Simon because of how this encounter will be viewed by those watching.
And while Roelfie rants and raves about his life and how it has been driven to nothing by this unnamed woman, Simon watches, listens and waits. What he is hearing from this white man is not strange to him. His whole life has been determined by the ways of others and it is happening over again and again and again.
From the start, Minnaar goes at it full steam and he has to do that to allow for the full impact of what Fugard wants to unleash. It is the small story between these two men that looms large in their lives, because that’s all they have.
That has always been Fugard’s way, to let the unseen little people show the way.
With Minnaar back on the Market stage and together with Kani, it is a glorious meeting of theatre genius, but all in search and to the benefit of the story. Exactly what Weir-Smith was hoping to achieve.
The Train Driver is at the Market Theatre until June 3.