Race and Reconciliation: Jake Murray on Directing Athol Fugard’s Playland (Part 1)

Jake Murray
@JakesNewVoices

When it premiered in 1993 at the dawn of South Africa’s post-apartheid democracy, Athol Fugard’s Playland testified to the challenges and hope of reconciliation across racial divides. In 2019, the confrontation with racial difference still seems politically acute – making this an apt moment for Elysium Theatre Company to bring the play to the North East for the first time. In part one of a two-part interview, Director Jake Murray explains why this play, why now. In part two, Jake takes us into Elysium’s production process.

Elysium’s most recent productions have included contemporary drama in the form of Jez Butterfield’s The River, and canonical nineteenth-century drama in the guise of Strindberg’s Miss Julie. What was behind your decision to turn to Playland next?

One of Elysium’s goals is to bring ‘the best of world theatre to the North’. We’ve done Northern Irish work, American work, British works and Swedish work, and it seemed appropriate to reach even further and bring South African work to the region. Fugard is one of the greatest living playwrights in the English language, and Playland is one of his most powerful works. It’s never been done in the North, so it felt like an exciting piece to produce. It will be our second Northern premiere, and our fourth Durham premiere.

When we interviewed you about Elysium’s previous play, Miss Julie, you spoke of how that production had its roots in your childhood. Did you have a similar early connection to Fugard’s work?

Fugard is another playwright who I discovered in my teens and have wanted to direct ever since. I was doing a course on African literature at school, went to the library and pulled out whatever I could find. One play was The Road To Mecca by Athol Fugard. I loved it. It ended up being the first show I directed at University. It was an odd choice because the average age of the characters is 65, but I loved it so much I didn’t care. I’ve loved Fugard ever since, and wanted to do more of his work. What I love about it is his profound humanity, and his belief that even the most appalling divisions within us can be overcome.

Of all of his work Playland speaks most powerfully to us today, perhaps because of the starkness of its setting and because it takes the case of an ex-solider with PTSD as its central metaphor for what racism can do even to its perpetrators. We know a great deal more of what warfare between cultures and races does to us now. What is so interesting about doing this play from the end of white minority rule in South Africa now is how far we have come, how much we have forgotten and how close we are to doing it all again.

Apartheid fell in 1993 as the Cold War politics that kept it standing had disappeared. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s it was a major part of my youth. We were very aware of it as a paradigm for racial and political injustice. Its end with the election of Nelson Mandela as the first President of a free South Africa were was something we only dreamed of. Along with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of Soviet Communism and the start of the Olso Accords the world seemed on the verge of a wonderful new era of peace, justice and harmony.

Just over 25 years on and that all seems like a distant memory. We have forgotten what totalitarian regimes are like, and what it means to embedding racial and political injustice in a society means. A whole generation of people have grown up not knowing anything about Apartheid, so its warnings have been lost.

All across Europe and the wider world, societies are drifting to the Right. Populist leaders are urging us to enshrine nation, creed, colour and sexuality as the defining issues of life – if you are not one of ‘us’ you are an enemy – and populations are voting with their feet to support them. It’s vitally important that plays like Playland are performed to remind us of where that takes us.

Fugard was writing at a time of hope when he believed race as a political dividing line was coming to an end in his country. We are presenting it when race seems to be becoming a dividing issue again. That seemed very in keeping with Elysium’s humanist vision of what theatre can be.

For this reason, we are proud to be presenting Playland during Black History Month, and are doing so with the support and co-operation of the South African High Commission and Show Racism The Red Card. Fugard took a stand throughout his life against racial injustice, we are making our own small stand here. If theatre can’t do that, then it isn’t doing its job. When I spoke to the staff of Show Racism The Red Card we all agreed that we were on the verge of going in the wrong direction in terms of race in this country, and that this play could speak directly to that.

Photograph of President De Klerk and Nelson Mandela shaking hands
Copyright World Economic Forum (www.weforum.org) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As you’ve just alluded, Playland is set in South Africa shortly before the formal end of apartheid. At its first staging in 1992, the South African actor John Kani (who starred) heralded the play as ‘The first reconciliation production performed in South-Africa’. Reconciliation would of course subsequently become embedded in the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. So how does ‘reconciliation’ emerge? Can the play teach us anything about how we might meet across division?

Playland was written a couple of years before the Truth and Reconciliation process began – and the great John Kani was right. The play deals with two men: Gideon, a white, working class Afrikaaner soldier with PTSD, and Martinus, a Zulu nightwatchman. Both have killed. Gideon has fought in the Angolan War and taken part in massacres of African freedom fighters. Martinus has done time for murdering his white boss for raping his wife.

Both men confront each other on New Year’s Eve 1989, on the threshold of the decade that would see the end of apartheid. With delicious irony Fugard sets it just before news of Mandela’s release happened, so neither man has any idea of what is ahead. We know that Gideon’s world is coming to an end, but neither he nor Martinus have any idea.

With beautiful economy Fugard uses Gideon and Martinus as metaphors for the whole history of Apartheid, and shows how both men have been scarred by it. The question is: is it possible to forgive after such crimes and acts of violence have been committed?

Fugard gives a very subtle answer, which I won’t reveal, but one that feels true to the enormity of what apartheid was. Nevertheless, Fugard spent his life committed to bridging divides of race, and his innate humanism and desire to transcend barriers between people is very much on show in the play. But he is honest enough to show the limits of that and that is what makes the play remarkable. To know more you’ll have to come and see it.

Earlier you mentioned that, beyond its original historical moment, there’s an obvious contemporary relevance to Playland at a time when populist politicians are harnessing power by sowing the seeds of racial disharmony. Does that make it ironically more challenging to put on a play like this at this time, because it risks facile comparisons?

No, I think the timing of the play and its obvious contemporary relevance are a crucial reason why we should be doing it. As a theatre director and a person I have always been against racism and oppression, which is what drew me to Fugard in the first place. In our modern climate in which the likes of Trump, Farage, Le Pen, Salvini, Bolsonaro, Modi and Putin are consciously dividing us along racial and national lines, it’s easy to feel powerless. We all want to make a stand, so what better way for a theatre director to do so than put on a play directly challenging it?

Donald Trump, adapted from Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Fugard had no idea when he wrote Playland that the battle he thought had been won would have to be fought again all across the world, within liberal democracies most of all. The power of it is that it was written under a regime which had existed for decades by enforcing the kind of racial divisions that so many of these new populist leaders and their followers seem to long to perpetuate themselves. Playland addresses that by dramatising what those racial divisions look like when they become national law, what having your freedoms and legal protections is like if you are on the receiving end of racism enshrined by your government.

A play written now might be callow and earnest and overplay its hand, but a play written under such a regime from the past speaks to us now in a way that seems even more direct and clear. It’s as if the victims of the past are standing before us and saying ‘never forget and never repeat’. What better message can there be to put on stage at the moment.

While race is obviously the major theme of the play, what other aspects of identity, being, and belonging does it speak to?

The beauty of Fugard’s work is that although much of it deals with race, his profound humanism means it always goes beyond that to find wider resonances.

Fugard cites Beckett as one of his major influences, and all his plays deal with similar existential questions. Gideon and Martinus encounter each other first as two men on either side of a racial divide, one with all the power, the other without it. But as the play proceeds these divisions start to break down as we realise what both men are facing is the same: a brutalising society, isolation and loneliness, mental scarring, and a deep desire to belong and connect with another human being. Gideon is actually in desperate need of some kind of forgiveness, but can’t find it through all the pain, anger and trauma he is carrying. Martinus, too, is asking himself profound questions about God, damnation, punishment and justice. By the end of the play you feel you have seen deep into both men’s souls.

Indeed, one of the most beautiful things about it is Fugard’s belief that human beings can connect if only they are brave enough to open up to each other on that level. Both men have dropped out of their communities – Gideon is a victim of the brutal masculinity of the Apartheid regime which sent him out to fight and kill for a cause he barely understood, while Martinus has closed himself off from everyone because of what he has been through – so, curiously, both men have a lot in common. Fugard doesn’t suggest that a connection under these circumstances is anything other than hard fought, but he does suggest it is possible; more than that, he suggests it is a need in us. We seek a connection with other human beings, no matter what we have done. That is what makes his work so rich.

In the second half of our interview, Jake goes into the specifics of Elysium’s production process, and explain how the set design and use of a small ensemble cast will translate Fugard’s play into something powerful and provoking on stage. Playland is on tour across the region from 16th October to 3rd November.

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