This year beloved SA playwright Athol Fugard celebrates his 85th birthday. To mark the milestone, a new production of his acclaimed The Road to Mecca has just opened, appropriately, at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town.

Another local treasure, Sandra Prinsloo, plays Miss Helen, a role created by Fugard for the late Yvonne Bryceland. The play, written in 1984, was adapted for film in 1992. It was the first movie Fugard directed (and starred in, too, as Rev Marius Byleveld).

In this production Marius Weyers plays that role. He and Prinsloo were last seen on the Fugard Theatre stage together in Wie’s Bang vir Virginia Woolf?

The role of Elsa Barlow is played by the "brilliant young Emily Child", as Eric Abraham, founding producer of the Fugard Theatre, describes her.

The Road to Mecca script was inspired by Helen Martins, who lived in the tiny Eastern Cape town of Nieu-Bethesda and created The Owl House, a crushed glass-covered provincial heritage site. The play centres on "a woman’s desire for personal and artistic freedom within the narrow confines of a conservative and highly religious community in the Karoo in early 1970s apartheid SA", the publicity material for the production says.

Martins is an outsider artist, explained Fugard in an earlier interview, similar to Nukain Mabuza, his lead character in The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. Outsider artists are those who, despite a lack of formal training in their artistic discipline, have created something very beautiful. They are often socially or culturally marginalised.

Fugard describes outsider art as focusing on a very specific moment — when a creatively talented person has a sense that the end (of his or her creative output) has come. "That’s what Mecca is about — Helen looks at what’s she going to do with her life when ‘the pictures don’t come any more’, as she puts it." The answer comes during the course of the play.

Fugard Theatre resident director Greg Karvellas is directing the play, having worked on two Fugard productions as associate producer — The Shadow of the Hummingbird and The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. "When I was asked to direct The Road to Mecca I was able to share my vision with [Fugard] and get a few pointers and his blessing," says Karvellas. "He said: ‘Just keep it simple’. That was my initial instinct and the approach I have taken."

Free to put his own stamp on this phenomenal piece of writing, Karvellas says he wants the characters and the story to be "the absolute focus of this production. [Fugard] as a storyteller is a mighty force. He is an incredibly generous and humble artist who has written a beautiful script."

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