Whether it is in the simple details - a spider sliding down a silken thread, a butterfly fluttering through pipe smoke, sunbirds enjoying nectar – or through grander themes such as dispossession, love, death and dying, South Africa’s most prolific and greatest living playwright, Athol Fugard, continues to prove that no one yet has been able to match his singularly unique talents as a chronicler of our time. By MARIANNE THAMM.
Athol Fugard’s remarkable journey – now in its 82nd year – has been as an obsessive and passionate observer and chronicler of life and it’s questions and hidden secrets. Possessed of a relentlessly inquisitive mind, the author has consumed the world he has witnessed and spat it out in a remarkable body of work – his Notebooks, his screenplays, his novels and his stage plays – that stretches from the early 1950s to 2014.
And through it all, Fugard’s imagination, his intellectual vigour and his vitality as a writer has seldom flagged. Fugard is still driven and compelled to grapple with what it means to be human and to be alive – the good, the magical, the bad, the ugly, the profound, the desolation and the alienation.
While there have been elements of autobiography in many of Fugard’s stage works including Hello and Goodbye (the packet of seeds Johnnie finds under the bed is recalled from an incident in his childhood); Master Harold and The Boys (drawn from his experiences in the St George’s tea room his mother ran); A Place With The Pigs (a metaphor for his alcoholism) and Playland (harking back to the funfair that visited his hometown of PE in the holidays), his latest offering, The Shadow of The Hummingbird is the most “naked”, according to Fugard.
Shadow, also directed by Fugard, co-stars the somewhat under experienced Marviantoz Baker as Boba, the protagonist Oupa’s grandson. Set in a small and beautifully cluttered apartment in California (brought vividly to life in Saul Radomsky’s carefully detailed design), the short play essentially explores the loving relationship between a grandfather and his grandson.
In his programme note Fugard says the work was inspired when he became mesmerised by the shadow of a hummingbird that hovered above his writing desk in Southern California one afternoon in 2010. He understood in that moment that he needed to explore the only creative energy he had ever brought to his work – “love”.
And while “love” may be the centrifugal force driving the action on the stage, it is also the main engine that has informed Fugard’s relationship with life itself. From Plato to Socrates to Tolstoy, Oupa attempts to awaken in his grandson the love he himself has felt for the world, people and ideas.
With the help of Paula Fourie, a young South African-born writer who spent her childhood living in the US and Europe with diplomatic parents, Fugard penned the introductory scene of the play – culling it from the pages of the playwright’s own unpublished notebooks. Here Oupa, on his own, encounters himself (a metaphorical shadow in his writing) in the lines of his random scribblings.
Photo: Athol Fugard as Oupa and Marviantoz Baker as Boba. (Picture Jesse Kramer)
Fugard’s writing is considered, fluid, measured, economic, poetic – and as light and beautiful as the shadow of the hummingbird that miraculously flits about the curtain and the walls of this set.
Ultimately The Shadow of a Hummingbird is a touching meditation on being alive, of having the privilege of growing old and having found fulfillment (and a measure of wisdom) on the journey so far. And with age has come the bittersweet realisation that we are all, in the end, just shadows passing through. In Fugard’s case he has passed through life as much as it has passed through him.
The Shadow of the Hummingbird is an extraordinary stage experience. It is a strange blend of the real and the imaginary. It is semi-autobiographical yet it is not. It blurs the reality between what we think we know and what is inside that lovely bald dome of Fugard’s head and that has poured forth onto pages all of these years.
One does not so much “see” this new play as witness it. Fugard’s thoughts and ideas fan out, over and across the stage. His performance is authentic and beguiling to watch, filled with humour and self-reflection. An added pleasure, of course, is observing the veteran on stage, in his pyjamas, shuffling around his apartment in California awaiting a visit from his grandson.
“My God, that’s FUGARD himself,” one cannot help but think as you take it all in.
While Baker makes a suitably likeable Boba, a young character, his stage presence was a little too syrupy, a little too self-conscious on opening night. Perhaps he will settle into the character as the play continues its run. James Webb has composed a subtle and atmospheric soundscape while Mannie Manim’s lighting design magically illuminates an already luminous story. DM
The Cape Town run of The Shadow of the Hummingbird is sold out. It moves to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg from 30 July to 16 August and then moves to Pacofs in Bloemfontein from 21 to 30 August.
Main photo: Athol Fugard as Oupa in The Shadow of the Hummingbird (Picture Jesse Kramer)