A tricky double act

Q: How does a white South African playwright shock liberals post- apartheid? A: He casts himself as a black man. Paul Taylor meets Athol Fugard
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Casting a white actor as Othello is virtually unthinkable these days. But with Valley Song, his first play since the landmark general election of 1994, South Africa's foremost dramatist, Athol Fugard, pointedly braves the charge of political incorrectness in such matters. Taking on a double role, he plays both a thinly fictionalised version of himself - the white liberal Author - and also Buks, the old Coloured tenant farmer who fears dispossession when the Fugard figure buys a long-deserted house on the land (or the "akkers") in the Karoo heartland where the old man has been allowed to grow vegetables for decades, like his father before him.

"I'm sure at some point or other, as this play starts to get exposure, the question of me playing a black man is going to come in for a lot of flak," declared Fugard when I met him after a performance at the Manhattan Theatre Club, where his production is running prior to its season at the Royal Court. "Particularly," he adds, "as I play a black man in a very servile relationship to myself."

A wiry, fit-seeming 63-year- old, Fugard speaks in a clipped, explosive manner, his receptivity and friendliness emphasised by the way he repeatedly taps you on the arm or agrees with your tentative interpretations in soaring triplicate ("There you got it again! There you got it again!! There you got it again!!!"). It's in this fashion that he outlines the reasons for making "the very specific choice that the two characters must be played by the same actor".

Not surprisingly, given the momentous transitions through which his country is passing, Valley Song proves to be about "the pain of letting go of something you've had and held on to and the scariness of facing a new challenge and stepping into the unknown". In this regard, he claims, Buks and the Author are "two sides of the same coin or each other's shadows; hence my deliberate moving between the two identities, merging them almost". A hunger for the change about which they are equivocal, for different reasons, is represented by the third character, the widowed farmer's pride and solace, his 17-year-old granddaughter who fantasises about becoming a pop singer and saves up enough money, through singing for whites, to make a move to Johannesburg.

Playland, Fugard's last piece, which he describes as "my truth and reconciliation commission", was set on New Year's Eve 1989, a few days before FW de Klerk's speech lifting the ban on the ANC and announcing the release of Nelson Mandela. It brought together, in a near-mythic stalemate, an ex-corporal from the border war against Swapo, and Martinus, a black night-watchman who, some years before, had murdered the white rapist of his girlfriend. Tormented by the killing and burial of 27 Swapo guerrillas, the corporal has a desperate need for absolution. Until the very end, Martinus, who re-murders his girlfriend's defiler daily in his heart, seems singularly ill-placed to offer that.

As Fugard readily admits, black radicals cannot stomach the liberal "fair play" element of this: not just the last-minute breakthrough of tacit forgiveness but the conscientious way the drama tries to guard against too marked an imbalance of sympathies. Revulsion at the corporal, say, is modified by a sense of his youth - "An 18- or 19-year-old Afrikaaner boy, who doesn't even know how to think for himself yet, put into uniform and told to pull the trigger", as Fugard now describes him. Both were men of violence; both were driven to it. Neat tragic impasse or liberal fudge?

At the performance of Valley Song I attended, there were more white women in fur coats than black punters, of which there were perhaps half a dozen. What this liberal white critic saw on stage was a spare, poetic, ultimately very moving drama. In it the Coloured farmer's resistance to change and his sad but debatable methods of opposing it (monitoring his granddaughter's mail; offering her as a maid to the Fugard figure and taking pained offence when she won't stoop to a job her grandmother had been glad of) find their distorted mirror image in the apprehensive musings of the author-narrator and in his own possessive relationship with the girl. His discouragement of her hopes was, he eventually tells her, a ritual test of her resolve, but a test that part of him wanted her to fail. He admits to feeling jealous: "The future belongs to you now. There was a time when it was mine."

A less co-operative response to all this, however, might allege that in representing South Africa's newly enfranchised non-white population only by a starry-eyed teenage dreamer and an old man who cannot break the habit of believing that governments are there to be hidden from, not appealed to, Fugard manages to by-pass all the truly interesting and creatively challenging sectors of the constituency. It would indeed be ironic if this great crusader against apartheid, whose plays have been banned and whose passport has been confiscated, were to go to the trouble (and take the risk) of this symbolic acting double for an audience overwhelmingly composed of one skin colour.

"Listen to the vehemence and passion that has entered my voice as I talk about it," Fugard remarks, in an aside, at one point in our conversation. What he is talking about is his increased awareness of how much damage was done to his psychology - "The paranoias, the fears, the anxieties" - by the 40-odd years of official apartheid.

Apartheid provided writers with "a clear moral polarity", but now Fugard would like to break free from the well-made play aesthetic which that imposed. "I'm just trying to reconnect with and rediscover the incredible freedoms of a performance space." Valley Song he regards as a transitional work. What strikes you, though, are the boundaries of its non-naturalism. When the girl tells her grandfather that she doesn't need other people to put ideas in her head, you half wish she would turn on the Fugard figure and tell him she doesn't need people to put words in her mouth either, thus deconstructing his well-meaning but paternalist authorial hold over her. Fugard's plays have always had a wonderful plain strength as they waged war against apartheid. It will be fascinating to see how they develop now they can afford the luxury of experimentalism.

When he comes to the Royal Court, it will be the fulfilment of a dream, since, though he has a long connection with that theatre (Statement after an Arrest under the Immorality Act, Sizwe Bansi is Dead and The Island, for example, received their English premiere there in the 1974 "South Africa Season"), it will be the first time he has acted on its stage. He laughs that he has only just got in in time before the building closes for its Lottery-funded refurbishment. The future of the Court is somewhat easier to predict than the future of his country's drama. "What do I need that I haven't got?" he asked himself in a recent speech about the changing role of the writer, post-apartheid. "I think one needs," he now argues, "to be infinitely more specific about exactly what sort of South Africa one wants to work towards. Because I would like to put myself into harness again."

n 'Valley Song' is at the Royal Court, London SW1 (0171-730 1745) from 31 Jan