Life, etc

Playland: Fugard’s excavation of the mass graves of our psyche still makes for provocative theatre

By Marianne Thamm 27 January 2014

It is New Year’s Eve, 1989. Two men, one white, one black, both cast adrift on the violent tides of South African history, meet at a rickety country fairground. There’s a showdown of course and, in the end, reconciliation. Playwright Athol Fugard imagined this confrontation long before Julius Malema emerged to irrevocably alter the tone of the discourse between black and white South Africans. But is the play still relevant? By MARIANNE THAMM.

In 2005, a mass grave was unearthed at a building site in Namibia. The grave, which contained human remains and ammunition, was discovered a few hundred metres from what used to be the South African Defence force Eenhana military base between 1984 and 1989. This was one of three mass graves, the others were at Oshakati and Ombalantu.

After the discovery, an unnamed soldier came forward and confessed that he knew of at least five other mass burial sites and that he himself had been tasked, at the time, with disposing of the bodies of SWAPO PLAN (People’s Liberation Army) soldiers killed in a fierce nine-day battle with retreating Koevoet troops. Many of the casualties were children said the unnamed soldier in a report.

Members of Koevoet, a paramilitary counter-insurgency unit, were tasked with disposing of the bodies, layering the graves with wood before setting the corpses alight with aviation fuel. Many of the men who did this live among us today.

The soldier who had witnessed all this more than 25 years ago confessed that South Africans had often defiled the bodies of dead SWAPO soldiers, hacking off ears and even genitals to be used as “pen holders”.

Athol Fugard wrote the two-hander Playland in 1992 – two years after the release of Nelson Mandela – and the text was partly inspired by a gruesome photograph the playwright had seen of a mass grave, taken by photographer, John Liebenberg, of a corpse, his arms spread Christ-like being dropped into a mass grave at Oshakati.

The play is set in December 1989 (the Berlin wall had just been dismantled in November) and two men, on the cusp of a changing personal and international world-order, encounter each other on the outskirts of a traveling funfair – Playland. It is New Year’s Eve when a traumatised former soldier, Gideon Le Roux (Albert Pretorius), stumbles into night watchman Marthinus Zoeloe’s (Mbulelo Grootboom) domain on the outskirts of the funfair.

Director Albert Maritz’s effective set and lighting transforms the small Fugard Studio into a dangerous terrain, a chimera of the soul.

Playland of course represents white-dominated South Africa, with its tacky party music, its busted party lights, it’s hollow white laughter and screams from the big dipper. It is a world that is about to disappear but neither of the characters the playwright traps in this dusty setting knows this (of course Fugard assumes we do, so you’d better brush up on your history if you want to experience the full depth of the text here).

Saartjie Botha, one of the most respected voices in the contemporary in Afrikaans theatre (as a writer and producer), has masterfully translated Fugard’s text into Afrikaans. (Don’t worry; there are subtitles for those of you who do not speak the language.)

Translating the play into Afrikaans of course alters slightly the focus and meaning of the text. While white, English-speaking South Africans were no less complicit (explicitly or tacitly) in the promotion and preservation of Apartheid, using the “language of the oppressor” here adds another raw level of personal encounter. A black man who fluently speaks Afrikaans has lived in close proximity to his oppressor.

Both men have secrets but we know that Fugard is soon going to unpack these and allow them to ooze and spill out onto the stage. There is, we know, from the moment Gideon stumbles into Marthinus’ world, going to be a confrontation and the mother of all showdowns.

Fugard has created two characters here who have found themselves dropped into a terrible history. As individuals both are gentle men but circumstances have provoked and forced them to the gates of a personal hell from which neither have been able to return.

Gideon is a white boy who has returned from the border after participating in the mass killing of SWAPO soldiers. Marthinus is, in classic Fugard style, is a stoic black man who has also been provoked to murder in different albeit justified circumstances.

Gideon fortifies himself with alcohol (with the inane sound track of 1980s music drifting from the fairground) while Marthinus fortifies himself with silence and the Bible.

Veteran director Albert Maritz has extracted two highly watchable and dynamic performances from his players. Particularly Albert Pretorius is one of the finest young actors around (unforgettable in savage satire Three Little Pigs). Pretorius gives it his all, sweating, howling and even vomiting on stage as he unbundles the horror of his character’s psychic agony. In turn, the more taciturn Marthinus has not asked for this, has not provoked it and in fact tries to avoid interacting with this dangerously unstable man.

But the mad white boy keeps on and on…abusing the night watchman until he cracks, breaks and confesses that he too has killed. A white man. And guess what? He feels fuck all!

“If I forgive you, I have nothing,” Marthinus spits out at Gideon.

Sitting in 2014 it is interesting to watch how Fugard renders his black characters (and John Kani played the role in the original production opposite Sean Taylor). These characters are men trapped in their time, a time before Nelson Mandela and Julius Malema. A time when a black man (in Fugard’s world and even though he may have killed a white man in a moment of rage) tries to hold back, to not step into the ring even when abused and provoked.

In that sense Fugard correctly renders Marthinus although he is difficult, almost impossible to understand today. In fact Fugard’s rendering seems somewhat romantic (as does his idea of reconciliation) in retrospect. Mbulelo Grootboom renders a dignified and stoic Marthinus but perhaps he will, in time, access a seething rage that will counterbalance the explosive collateral damage caused by Pretorius’s Gideon.

It is vital for the stage to reflect us back to ourselves from time to time. You could opt to sing along to The Sound of Music (coming soon to a theatre near you) or you could face yourself in a play such as Playground. If you’re up for it, you won’t regret it. DM

Playland is on at the Fugard Studio until February 15.

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