The Train Driver, Hampstead Theatre

Tuesday 9th November 2010

The Train Driver. Photo: Alastair Muir
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Few playwrights have been so successful at moulding our view of a nation as Athol Fugard. It’s impossible to think of South Africa, especially during the apartheid years, without thinking of his Sizwe Bansi Is Dead, The Island or Statements after an Arrest under the Immorality Act. Since the end of the old regime in 1994, the moral fuel that powered his plays may have evaporated, but this new work, one of nine premiered by the 78-year-old author in the past 15 years, shows that his feeling for stagecraft and his concern for human dignity remain undiminished.

Opening with the narrator, Simon, a grave digger who looks after a cemetery for the dead who have no names on the outskirts of a squatter camp, the play is a 90-minute two-hander. One day, Roelf — a white train driver — arrives at this resting place of nameless ghosts. He’s drunk and on a mission. He wants to find the grave of the black woman who, together with her baby, deliberately stood in front of his train, and whose face he cannot forget. Now on the skids, it’s his last gesture in his search for understanding.

Together, this odd couple strike up an uneasy relationship. Despite the gruelling heat of the Eastern Cape, Roelf does a lot of talking. He’s the kind of Afrikaner who sucks on an idea until he’s drained all of the juice out of it. Suffering from the indelible memory of the nameless black woman’s death, he is traumatised and his whole existence has been put into question. Gradually, Simon finds his own voice. He tells Roelf about his grim life, a dog-eat-dog world where young gangsters, armed with knives, prey on passing strangers. When he sings to the dead, you feel a sudden tremor of transcendence.

Ever since Hamlet, the graveyard is a place of meditation. So the two men talk about mortality, the decay of flesh and the transience of individual lives. Designer Saul Radomsky’s beautifully dusty set is as dry as a bone, and you can feel the relentless heat of the African sun. Like this merciless environment, the play has an unrelenting quality. Jokes are thin on the dusty ground. At worst, it feels as if you are eavesdropping on someone else’s family — many references are obscure and these two seem to be talking to themselves.

Directed by Fugard, the play has two engrossing performances from Sean Taylor as Roelf and Owen Sejake as Simon. Taylor is restless, arriving as a mouthy drunk, becoming increasingly argumentative, half succumbing to his trauma, but eventually achieving a kind of redemptive peace. His bark, it turns out, is worse than his bite. By contrast, Sejake is massive and still. His eyes laugh but he barely moves, although occasionally he allows himself a gentle nod or an expression of surprise or the appearance of inner wisdom.

Wise or not, the impression that the play leaves on the retina is of a dirt-dry landscape that is populated by a people devoid of hope. Sombrely and depressingly, the colour of the bestial here is black, and post-apartheid South Africa remains, in this play, a nation of injustice. The nameless woman’s suicide is emblematic of this deep despair and it sets off a series of gestures and fatalities that batter home the point about hopelessness like a hammer slamming the last nails into a coffin lid. Sad, brutal and powerful stuff.

This review first appeared on The Arts Desk 

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