april 2017 | Volume 154
L-R: Paul Herbert, Pasi Clayton Gunguwo Photos: Nancy Caldwell
It’s a rare treat to have two plays by a major playwright on our stages at the same time. It’s especially fascinating to see Athol Fugard’s two-handers Valley Song (at Pacific Theatre) and The Train Driver side by side.
Fugard, who made a career of anatomizing the agonies of South Africa under apartheid, wrote both plays after the end of that awful racist experiment. Valley Song, written in 1996, in the early years of the new South Africa, is one of his most positive, optimistic, even sentimental plays. The Train Driver, from 2010 (though set in 2001), is a lot darker, reflecting Fugard’s disillusion with his country’s post-apartheid path.
Adam Henderson’s United Players production offers a beautifully acted, powerful vision of that darkness.
The play is set in a graveyard on the outskirts of a poor village, graphically rendered in John R. Taylor’s set, where a black gravedigger, Simon (Pasi Clayton Gunguwo), buries anonymous paupers, “the nameless ones.” He’s visited by a white Afrikaans man, Roelf (Paul Herbert), who is angry, frantic, spewing obscenities. Roelf is looking for a nameless black woman with a baby, both dead. He’s spent days in the area, looking for her village, reinforcing his stereotypical views of black Africans: “You people live like animals.”
Nearly the entire first act plays as Roelf’s mad scene. He tells Simon that if he finds the woman’s grave, he’s going to swear at her corpse, curse her even in death. Roelf reveals that he was driving a train when the woman appeared on the tracks with her baby, obviously wanting to be killed, and he couldn’t stop in time. He blames her for ruining his marriage and his life. She haunts him. Simon tiptoes around this crazy white man, warning him to get away before nightfall because the young men of the village, like the hungry dogs that dig up the corpses, will come after him with their knives.
Roelf shares Simon’s hovel for a couple of nights and in his madness—like Lear on the heath—starts to see what he was previously blind to. He begins to develop empathy, to understand the awfulness of black township life and “what it’s like to live without hope.” These are powerful moments, although Fugard allows things to get a little too rhetorical. Roelf’s revelations shouldn’t have to be so on the nose.
The ending is a surprise, and not a happy one. Insofar as the play presents an allegory of life in contemporary South Africa, it contrasts radically with the hopefulness at the end of Valley Song.
The acting here is some of the best ever seen at Jericho. Herbert throws himself into Roelf’s anguish, holding nothing back, showing the naked horror of the man’s guilt and despair. At the same time, Herbert captures the other side of what I think Fugard wants us to see in Roelf: that he’s a pain in the ass, whining about poor me, expecting the genuinely poor black man to sympathize with his pain.
Gunguwo provides a beautiful counterpoint and complement. His Simon does sympathize, but always at a slight distance. He’s calm and quiet, almost stoical, almost serene, in the face of Roelf’s hysterics. At the end the black man, as always, will pay for the white man’s self-indulgence.
Zakk Harris’ excellent sound design gives us a spectrum of haunting African music, and director Henderson lets the music play longer than is usually the case in blackouts and at the beginnings of scenes, letting us hear as well as see the struggles of a people trying to find their way.
get in touch with vancouverplays:
Vancouver's arts and culture website providing theatre news, previews and reviews