Processing Playland: Jake Murray on Directing Athol Fugard’s Drama (Part 2)

Jake Murray

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 the first half of our interview, Jake Murray, who is directing the play for Elysium Theatre Company, explained why this work set at the dusk of apartheid is especially relevant for our own times when racial division is resurgent. In this second part, Jake talks about how Elysium’s unique ensemble process will present Fugard’s vision on the stages of the North East for the very first time.

Playland is set in an amusement park, which is usually a site of fun but here a bleak and unsettling backdrop for apartheid. How are you envisaging the staging?

Fugard uses the run-down amusement park known as ‘Playland’ as a metaphor for the Apartheid regime. It’s a manic place, full of bright lights and fun rides, food stalls and expectant crowds looking for fun. Playland promises happiness, but in the end it’s all a veneer. Once the park closes everyone goes back to their lonely lives, darkness falls, and silence is all there is. More than that, Playland is falling apart and closing down. The crowds are tailing off, the equipment is disintegrating, and the staff are on their last legs. What better metaphor for a dying way of life could there be?

I don’t want to give too much away, but Fugard sets the play in a forgotten corner of the park, on a small area of waste ground where Martinus has set up his camp: a wrecked roller coaster carriage with a bit of tarpaulin stretched over it. Louis Price, our designer, has created a wonderfully evocative set that uses all the elements Fugard calls for in an almost Beckettian way: the rollercoaster carriage, the red earth of South Africa, a single pole with a megaphone on it…

A word on the actors and the company you’ve assembled. Across Elysium’s five previous plays, and this one, you’ve worked with a small ensemble of actors. How does that affect the dynamic of production?

Elysium is very much an actor-driven company. Unlike most theatre, where you decide on a play and then cast it, hoping you will find the right group of actors who will work well together, we choose plays based on the idea of a growing ensemble. This is much more in keeping with the great companies of old who had a standing group of actors to work with – Shakespeare’s Queen’s and King’s Men, Moliere’s troupe, Chekhov’s Moscow Arts Theatre, Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble and so on. This means we choose plays with actors in mind, knowing they will be able to incarnate their roles with maximum power. So Alice Frankham, our Miss Julie, was in our first two shows, Days Of Wine And Roses and Jesus Hopped The A Train, and returned to play Strindberg’s iconic character.

What this means is that actors grow together with the company, trust is there from the outset in the rehearsal room, everyone knows each other’s process and it becomes much easier to go deep with characters much faster.

We’ve developed what we call the ‘Elysium Two Week Process’ thanks to this, whereby we are able to rehearse shows for only two weeks but get great results because we know each other so well, know how we all work and know what we are looking for.

So how does this particular show bring that ensemble together?

Faz Singhateh (who plays Martinus) and Danny Solomon (who plays Gideon) first performed together in Jesus Hopped The A Train which we did at the Assembly Rooms in Durham and HOME in Manchester last year. This was a production that we were incredibly proud of. It caused a huge splash (especially in Manchester) and helped really put us on the map. Geof Keys of Hexham’s Queen’s Hall Arts Centre saw it at the Assembly Rooms and opened his doors to us with The River, Miss Julie and now Playland. Katy Taylor, his successor, has run with this and we are building an ongoing relationship with the theatre.

In Jesus Hopped The A Train Faz played Lucius Jenkins, an African American on death row in Rikers Island. Danny played Angel Cruz, who is put in an adjacent cage to him for one hour each day so they can both get some air. Interestingly, the play also dealt with issues of punishment and redemption, guilt and forgiveness, God and religion. It was an electric show and the two were fantastic together. We’ve been trying to bring Faz back to the company ever since and Playland seemed like the perfect opportunity. Knowing these two and how powerfully they work together makes the prospect of getting back into the rehearsal room with them incredibly exciting.

Finally, once all the stresses of production are behind you and the show has, hopefully, been another success, what happens next for Elysium?

Well, we have lots going on in the pipeline, but our next project, if everything falls into place, is going to be Look Back In Anger by John Osborne. Planned for May 2020 this will see us returning to main stages in Durham and beyond. It’s a thrilling, passionate, electrifying piece, still controversial after all these years. People argue about it and its protagonist, Jimmy Porter, even more now than they did when it premiered in 1956 and transformed British theatre forever. It’s a true landmark work, so expect sparks to fly!

Read the first half of our conversation with Jake Murray, as he explains why Fugard’s play, set at the dusk of apartheid, is a work relevant to our own times when racial division is resurgent through the politics of populism. Playland is on tour across the region from 16th October to 3rd November.

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