The first few minutes of Athol Fugard's Playland - a two- hander premiered here in the author's own excellent production at the Donmar Warehouse - are not at all promising in that respect. Pointedly set at the dawning of a new year, 1990, the drama is located near a travelling funfair and brings together Martinus (John Kani), the black night- watchman who sits by his rusty brazier, and Gideon Le Roux (Sean Taylor), a white ex-corporal from the border war against Swapo, purportedly there to grab some fun yet increasingly drawn to this other figure.
They make an intriguing couple: the one all still, dour and magnetic as he proclaims his belief in the God of the Old Testament; the other restless, wound up, manically chortling at his own mirthless jokes and making ham- fisted overtures of friendship. What spoils things is the symbolism which, at this stage, seems too mechanically portentous to impress. As they look up at the blood-red sunset, there's this rib- hammering exchange:
'Tonight I see the colours of eternal damnation.'
'Hell, that's heavy, man.'
The eponymous funfair all too obviously represents white escapism, while the situation between the two men has its allegorical potential spelt out: 'Don't tell me to go,' objects the white man, 'this is still a free country - you people haven't taken over yet.'
But from the moment of the noisy firework countdown to the New Year, when something clearly explodes in Gideon's mind, the play enters a deeper, more compelling phase during which it approaches the power and suggestive simplicity of myth. What links the two men, it emerges jaggedly, is murder. Martinus killed the white rapist of his girlfriend, a sin he cannot bring himself to repent; Le Roux is tormented by the killing and burial of 27 Swapo guerrillas and has a desperate psychological hunger for absolution. What gives the confrontation its resonance is the tragic impasse it runs up against, thanks to Fugard's skill. 'Forgive me or kill me,' says Le Roux, 'that's the only choice you've got.' He's applying to just the wrong person, since to forgive this white man would entail forgiving the rapist, and Martinus's identity is built on re-murdering that man daily in his heart.
Sean Taylor convinces at each stage, from cocky, unconvincing bluster (always edgily hitching up his trousers) to hollow, desperate jollity in a paper crown, to taunting menace and whimpering crack-up. John Kani, meanwhile, brings a wonderful quality of stoic self-containment and submerged grief to the part of the night- watchman. Over an unbroken 90 minutes, irritation with the stiffness of the symbol-strewn format gives way to the feeling that you are witnessing something profound. If talk of Le Roux's pigeons in the first half signposts too obtrusively a metaphor of liberation, by the time it comes (at the tentatively hopeful close), it has earned its place. And such is the eventual mythic force of the piece that the claim that 'the whole world is me and you, right now' no longer seems so overweening.
The Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (071-867 1150).