Athol Fugard’s Train Driver On the Right Track with John Kani and Dawid Minnaar

Pictures: Brett Rubin

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John Kani, Charmaine Weir-Smith and Dawid Minnaar


With director Charmaine Weir-Smith focussed on the storytelling, Athol Fugard’s The Train Driver which runs at the Market’s Mannie Manim Theatre from May 4 to June 3 starring Dawid Minnaar and John Kani is in gently guiding hands. DIANE DE BEER spoke to three amazing artists:



It is the unexpected coming together of two theatre greats, John Kani and Dawid Minnaar, in The Market’s Fugard@86 season that had director Charmain Weir-Smith bubbling with excitement at the offer to direct Fugard’s little known The Train Driver.

Even though she was ecstatic at the thought, she first had to check whether she connected with the story. “I have to be able to tell the story,” she says – only then could she celebrate with exuberance.

For Minnaar and Kani, it was an easy fit. These two acclaimed actors, while both working in Gauteng, had never worked together. “He has always been on my list,” notes Kani even though he has resisted playing in his friend Fugard’s The Train Driver, because he couldn’t see the point of his character.

But he didn’t need much convincing and when Hollywood (where he is busy with the latest version of Lion King) gave the thumbs up because of a break in his schedule, it was all systems go.

For Minnaar, returning to The Market is something to cherish. He regards it as his theatrical home, but in the past few decades his appearances there were minimal. Hopefully that’s about to change.

It is a haunting play that is only fully realised in performance which is why these two actors and their particular skills are exactly what Fugard would have imagined for this post-apartheid play. In part he reflects on the state of the nation with a clarity and simplicity of thought that possibly only South Africans can fully grasp.

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John Kani and Dawid Minnaar

What this theatrical trio appreciated was the commitment from each other. It’s the process they appreciate and enjoy which in today’s festival-driven world is such a luxury. “They think it is a snap of a finger and you have a play,” says Minnaar wryly as he dreams about escaping the relentless festival circuit.

Time allows the director and the actors to work with the text. That’s when they get to the essence not only of the text but also of each other. One can just imagine these two passionate performers and their processes as they twist and turn their characters inside out to get closer to the truth.

It’s a Fugard text that teases the players while not allowing any tricks, to get to the truth. And for the audience the experience is similar as he slips in familiarities in our landscape as clues to what he is really dealing with.

On the surface it is the story of a tormented train driver, Roelf Visagie, who turns up at a graveyard with unmarked graves at the edge of an informal settlement in the middle of nowhere. He is  determined to find the grave of an unknown woman who with her baby on her back, stepped in front of his train. He is in obvious distress as he seeks the guidance of the gravedigger, Simon Hanabe, who is unable to be of assistance but nevertheless willing to sympathise.

Generosity is what was evidenced in the rehearsal space, that and an absence of ego, says the director who believes that is what is necessary for the authenticity that will make or break this particular play.

And while Kani was initially puzzled by the purpose of Simon with Roelf the focus as he struggles to come to terms with the way his life has been upended by a single act, that is no longer true. “I am pleased to be paying tribute to my friend Athol,” he says.

His connection with and knowledge of Fugard’s work and writing has been hugely important to this production. The playwright has Americanised some of his work over the past few years while writing from that country. “He speaks, for example, of barbeque rather than braai,” says Weir-Smith and having sat through a rehearsal, the way they have worked with the text has grounded it locally in a way only Fugard would – thanks to Kani.

Simon, argues Kani, is the one who knows about loss and blame. “I know how to listen,” he adds, and Weir-Smith agrees. “You are the one who holds Roelf,” she says. And even though his own script load isn’t that heavy, he had to learn all Minnaar’s lines. “There aren’t many queues,” he wails which means he has to know when and how to simply nod or come in with a brief phrase or two.

Kani describes the female director as someone who “mothers the process”. And for the director, it is simply about telling a story. “Once upon a time there was a woman with a child …”

No more no less – especially with this one where you don’t want anything to take away from the writer and his words, the way the story unfolds and the two men untangling their minds and their worlds in a way that brings new insights – or reminders of where we are even when dealing with the past.

For Minnaar this is a time of firsts. Not only is this a meeting of minds with Kani, it is also his first encounter with Fugard. “It feels right for me now,” is how he views the season. “I am honoured and to do a Fugard, is fantastic.”

Watching the two men at work and play is a privilege but nothing is guaranteed on stage – not even with Kani and Minnaar. Yet when you watch them slip into their characters, silently but with an assured stride, it is a world of make-believe that comes alive.

These are artists who believe in what they do and will work as hard as it takes – given the time and place – to make it work. We who can witness this, are blessed and Fugard will know that The Train Driver is cherished in this company of true artists.