Though now resident mainly in California, at 78, the award-wining South African playwright Athol Fugard still finds inspiration from (and much to criticise about) events and the political situation in his homeland.
His new play (which he also directs) is set in a forsaken burial ground beyond an Eastern Cape squatters camp where unidentified bodies – black bodies – are finally laid to rest by gravedigger Simon who, for a pittance, spends his days digging up the earth and his nights, wrapped in a blanket in his shack, ready to soothe the ghosts of the departed when the stray dogs howl.
It’s not the sort of place you’d expect to find a white man, but Afrikaner Roelf has come here in search of the nameless young woman who ruined his life.
It’s not, as one might assume, a story of sex or exploitation, but of his emotional journey from deep, uncontrollable anger to a rueful understanding of the hopelessness which drove her to stand, with her baby, in the path of the train he was driving. Unable to stop in time, he’s traumatized by the unshakeable memory of the moment when their eyes met and he realised he was powerless to save the life that she saw no point in living.
Based on a true incident, Fugard’s 80-minute two-hander is both an indictment of the failure of post-Apartheid South Africa to care for its people and a portrayal of a growing understanding between two individuals. Owen Sejake makes silence speak volumes as the compassionate, dignified old Simon, marking the graves of the “sleeping people” with hub caps and bits of metal, and Sean Taylor conveys all the anguish of a man for whom the comforting certainty of everyday routine has become a thing of the past.
Hampstead, Eton Avenue, NW3 3EU
020 7722 9301
Tube: Swiss Cottage
Until 4th December
– Louise Kingsley