Some people don’t know anything about Bram Fischer except that he has a road named after him. That’s a travesty. Hopefully the brilliant play The Bram Fischer Waltz will change it. By LESLEY STONES.
While present day South Africa is unavoidably steeped in history, Fischer is a name that has slid to the periphery. One of the lesser-celebrated anti-Apartheid heroes.
That was certainly true for me, until I did some quick swotting up before seeing The Bram Fischer Waltz at the Market Theatre.
What a fascinating man! What a tragic life. What courageous and ultimately self-destructive deeds. And what superb material for the theatre.
Fischer was an Afrikaner communist and the advocate whose defence saved Nelson Mandela and his comrades from the death penalty at the Rivonia Trial. Shortly after, he was on the run himself.
Playwright and director Harry Kalmer conducted extensive research and interviewed Fischer’s daughter and some survivors who were jailed alongside him to dig deeper into his character and his background.
The result is presented in a one-man play starring the brilliant David Butler, who inhabits the character so well that you feel you’ve been transported to the claustrophobic Pretoria prison.
Butler swings from loneliness to being haunted by his ghosts, from deep, tangible anguish to moments of near lightheartedness as he remembers dancing with Molly, his late wife.
But sorrow and a visceral sense of loss permeate his prison cell as he tells his story through acted-out memories or heart-wrenching reminisces.
The stage is the simple cell with a few props to help Butler become his character on the run, hiding from the authorities when he does a bunk and goes underground.
It’s a story of choices made and actions bravely taken, and painful consequences borne until a man can take no more.
When Butler reaches the scene where his beloved Molly dies the audience is silent, frozen in shared sorrow.
Fischer’s life story is truly remarkable, and Butler delivers it like a gift to us, wrapped in emotions that he unveils layer by layer.
It’s a fabulous vehicle for him as an actor, although I wanted to like the overall production more than I actually did.
It’s wordy show that rewards your concentration, but that’s not a problem because the words are fascinating. Many facts and events are packed into the play, creating a sort of history lesson with a lot of heart. Both Kalmer and Butler have edited it down to achieve a fine balance of plenty of meat without becoming indigestible.
Its weakness lies in the ending, which feels as if they suddenly looked at the clock and realised there was too much still to fit in. Butler covers himself with the communist red flag as a shroud while a voice-over narrator ends the story for us.
I’d love to see that reworked into a more powerful punch delivered by Butler himself. Although I’m sure I would have cried a little more.
The Bram Fisher Waltz runs at The Market Theatre until 5 October. DM
Photos: Ruphin Coudyzer