Remembrance of things past: The playwright is white. The actor is black. They have worked together for 28 years, but they remain worlds apart. Athol Fugard and John Kani explain why to Georgina Brown

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Athol Fugard, a wizened and wiry 60- year-old, has a spring in his step and an arresting brightness in his darkly penetrating eyes. It's not simply that he's happy to be in Britain directing his latest play in front of an audience he calls 'the finest in the world - you listen and wait'. Fugard's mood of affirmation is a reflection of the positive developments in South Africa which, in turn, find expression in Playland. 'Just a few years ago you would have found me pessimistic. I believed I would never see the end of apartheid in my lifetime. That monstrous system was like a thousand- year Reich and it looked as if I was going to die in it; I never despaired, but God knows I came close to it. Now, goddamnit, Nelson Mandela and De Klerk are talking to each other; the ANC and the government are going to sit down next month and reopen negotiations and I think they have learnt from the terrible consequences of the stall process that they have got to make it happen.'

While the play's optimistic tone is a distinct departure, it is otherwise true to form. Fugard's work has always been an immediate and urgent response to the political situation in South Africa, his voice the conscience of his white countrymen. His first play, The Blood Knot (performed in an abandoned factory in Johannesburg in 1961 when the apartheid system had become entrenched), placed for the first time on stage together a black and a white man in a passionate probe of the subject of race. The multiracial audience were spellbound and Fugard became a national figure almost overnight. (When the play was televised in 1967, Fugard's passport was withdrawn until the end of the decade.) Playland reaffirms Fugard's conviction that a common understanding between black and white is possible.

Against the manufactured gaiety of a fun-fair, a nightwatchman, Martinus (played by John Kani), is taunted by Gideon, a vicious gun-crazy veteran of the war in Namibia who insists there is 'something between us'. Gnawed by remorse, reconciliation with themselves and each other can only be through mutual forgiveness. 'Forgive me or kill me. That's the only choice you've got,' says Gideon. He might be speaking on behalf of every white South African.

The shape of Playland conforms to the model Fugard established in The Blood Knot - a cast of two of 'the poorest of the poor of my South Africa' embodying the tensions current in that society. 'Poor theatre' is for Fugard a matter of preferred practice. 'What I'm interested in is the dynamic between two or three people - nucleus situations. It's the size of canvas that I have found convenient. I'm a miniaturist,' says Fugard, his precise delivery suggesting a determination never to waste a single word or risk the smallest misinterpretation.

Fugard began writing for the theatre because he has 'a particular fascination for, and ear for, the spoken word. I'm particularly interested in language as it lives in people's mouths. I don't write for the eye, I write for the ear' - an ear that was tuned by his mother, an Afrikaans-speaking South African who 'had a glorious time mangling the English language. I can remember through my childhood listening with admiration to the corruptions, the malapropisms and all the wonderful things that happened to the English language in her mouth.'

That he has persisted with drama for almost 40 years rather than novels or poetry is, he believes, partly because his 'metabolism is that of a theatreman exploring the dynamic between people in space and time,' but, more important, because of his profound conviction in theatre's unique power. 'It's a time machine like music. An audience lives through an experience in real time; that's one of the reasons for its incredibly deep penetration. When apartheid was slowly being defined by the Afrikaans politicians, I was an angry young man and I seriously wondered whether I shouldn't be making bombs or joining an underground movement like some of my friends. I eventually realised that theatre was in fact a significant form of action, that writing a play was as, if not possibly more, potent a response to a situation than putting a bomb in a shopping mall.'

His view is supported by John Kani, the commanding, award-winning black actor and one of a handful of performers with whom Fugard has worked time and time again. 'Theatre has had a very important role in changing South Africa,' says Kani (who performs in English, his eighth language). 'There was a time when all other channels of expression were closed that we were able to break the conspiracy of silence, to educate people inside South Africa and the outside world. We became the illegal newspaper.'

Kani, who has collaborated with Fugard on several plays including The Coat and Sizwe Bansi Is Dead and for whom Fugard wrote the brilliant Master Harold and the Boys, is currently artistic director of the Market Theatre Johannesburg, but he did not set out to become a man of the theatre. His plans to do a law degree were scuppered when his elder brother was arrested for being a member of the ANC youth league and sent to Robben Island for five years, and 21-year-old Kani had to get a job instead. It was then that he learnt of a theatre group called the Serpent Players.

'I heard that this white man was breaking all rules in meeting these black guys. I was young, black, militant, frustrated, bitter and angry and I couldn't understand why this group wasn't suspicious of him, why they were making him feel at home so much, and being so open about their lives. I sat at the back and listened to him talk about this Greek classic Antigone and the play ceased to be the struggle for Antigone to bury her brother against the law of the state, it was for us to do the things we had to do against the laws of the state. And I began to think maybe this white man is OK, maybe he is not like the others who spent time with black people studying them as anthropologists and ended up with a volume that says, I know blacks. I realised that this man was committed to the struggle in South Africa and that immediately cemented our relationship.'

That was 28 years ago and the white man was, of course, Athol Fugard. What followed was the arrest (and incarceration for seven and a half years) of the actor playing Haemon - and Kani's first speaking role. Fugard recognised in Kani (and also the late Yvonne Bryceland and Zakes Mokae, who performed alongside Fugard in that first production of The Blood Knot) what he describes as 'a huge soul and the instinctive storytelling craft of the Ancient Mariner which doesn't let the audience escape' and has frequently created roles with Kani in mind. 'He writes against my character, challenging me with things he knows that politically and personally I wouldn't do,' says Kani. Coming as he does from the Method school of acting, Kani believes that in Playland Fugard has presented him with the challenge of his life. 'This play is about reconciliation and forgiving the white man. I'm not ready. Not yet. I have made major breakthroughs on an individual level - with Athol Fugard, with Barney Simon (of the Market Theatre), who have made an incredible impact on my life. We've shared things, we've struggled together for a better South Africa. Those are my friends. There are very few of them. Very, very few. But I cannot say of any white man in the street, 'I have forgiven him.' '

Kani reveals that in 1985 his 25-year-old brother, a poet, was shot on his way home from a funeral. 'This is a play about a young man who's been in the army who has committed these atrocities, killed people. The membrane that separates the situation of Playland and the reality of my life is so thin, it's straddling all the time. Every evening I have to believe in my heart that I do forgive in order to persuade that audience. Every evening I see my brother with his stomach blown to pieces with three bullets,' he says, his voice quavering. 'And what I want is to avenge my brother's death with another death. If I could be part of killing then I would feel that my brother's death was paid for. I am now beginning to understand that the things happening in South Africa do not pay off the debt of the death of my brother but what they do is make his death not in vain. He was one of the casualties of a noble struggle. That's the only way I can deal with it now. Athol knows that. Individuals who have lost family or a friend, who have been incarcerated themselves, need time to adjust. Once you forgive you can't play with your emotions and say you don't forgive; and if I say I forgive, does the pain go away? The days I spent in detention, do they come back? Does my brother come back? You open the newspaper and read of the atrocities - people shot down in a squattercamp, mowed down in marches, arrested - and I still think not yet, not yet, because this pain and this anger and this bitterness has kept me going all the time. I am not prepared to talk about forgiving until I come from the ballot box. I will be 50 in August and I've never voted in my life.'

Fugard acknowledges that readjusting to the dissolution of apartheid cannot be done overnight. As a playwright he has to do without the clear dramatic morality of the past. 'I have to redefine myself and Playlands is the first move. The challenge that faces white South Africa is to find in our hearts and in our souls a genuine act of repentance; the challenge facing black South Africa is to hear and see and have the bigness of soul to be able to say to us, 'I hear you, I believe you; I forgive you.' It's no longer one political philosophy brutalising the majority of all the black peoples of South Africa; now it's Inkatha versus the ANC; it's white violence on white; it's black violence on white.' He smiles grimly. 'The challenge I face is working in greyness.'

Details in previews and first nights below

(Photograph omitted)