Pictures: Lungelo Mbulwana
DIANE DE BEER
THE TRAIN DRIVER
PLAYWRIGHT: Athol Fugard
DIRECTOR: Charmaine Weir-Smith
CAST: John Kani, Dawid Minnaar
LIGHTING: Mannie Manim
SET AND COSTUME: Thando Lobese-Moropa
VENUE: Mannie Manim Theatre at Joburg’s Market
UNTIL: June 3
THERE’S a reason certain actors gain extraordinary reputations and to have two of them in a Fugard face-off on stage, is something to cherish.
The Train Driver while written post 2000 and only performed locally once before, is classic old-time Fugard, a story that might seem without much flesh and 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 is so much part of his local stories, the way he teases and twists with his tale, coaxes it to unfold and doesn’t take a breath until he deals that final blow.
Weir-Smith first 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 plays with such honesty. It cuts to the bone with no adornment, and very little to detract other than the two men sharing their story – and in the South African context in the past and still today, the stories of two men with similarities, yet the colour of their skin denies them any clear thinking or reaching out. The damage which is ongoing is too much to bear.
Her only nod to any embellishment is a very selective use of music, especially at the end, when the most exquisite and heart-wrenching sounds of the Pretoria Palisander Choir with Ukuthulu (Prayer of Peace) give expression to everything that’s gone before.
But royal kudos should go to the two actors who took this one and turned it inside out to tell a story of its day – looking back and to the future with a clarity that literally doesn’t leave a stone unturned. 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.
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, cultures and humanity 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 exclaims, because that should make the white man go away.
In his own 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 claiming this space.
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 (the Mannie Manim theatre aptly) and together with Kani, it is a glorious meeting of theatre genius – all in search and to the benefit of the story.
Exactly what Weir-Smith was hoping to achieve.