By BRUCE DENNILL
The Train Driver / Directed by Charmaine Weir-Smith / Mannie Manim Theatre, Market Theatre, Newtown, Johannesburg 7
With The Train Driver being one of Athol Fugard’s more recent plays – it premiered in 2010 – it might be expected that some of the playwright’s long-established themes (politics and race relations, primarily) might have been shifted to the periphery, somewhat. That is the case to some degree, with the piece being an intimate two-hander built around the tragic suicide of an unseen third character. But the us-and-them narrative remains, arguably – in just a couple of spots in the script – to the detriment of the play.
The story concerns Simon (John Kani), an elderly black labourer whose job is to bury unclaimed bodies in a bare piece of ground in a township cemetery, where he has to deal with, among other threats, gangs of violent youngsters and roaming street dogs. Into his life stumbles Roelf (Dawid Minaar), a white man of similar vintage, intent, for some reason, on finding a particular body. It transpires that he is a train driver who has had the misfortune of having a woman with a baby strapped to her back step in front of his train, giving him no opportunity to avoid hitting and killing her, and the psychological impact of the event has ruined his life. He has been told by the local undertaker that Simon is the person most likely to be able to help him find the body of the woman so that he can try and gain some sort of closure.
The developing of the relationship between the two men is the heart and soul of the piece. It’s a slow burn as they discover what common ground they have – age, fatigue, concerns about broader society – and as they come to understand that some of their individual perspectives will never match up, and that that’s okay, regardless of what the political systems they have lived under have told them.
Kani has what he makes look like the simpler job, being an uneducated but basically decent man. It is a mark of Kani’s acting skill that the character of Simon, though never flashy or over-reaching, is unerringly consistent and thus always believable. It is Minaar, however, who has the lion’s share of the dialogue – indeed, there is a section in the first act in which, for ten minutes or more, all Kani is asked to do is sit and nod as Minaar unpacks Roelf’s angst in exhaustive detail. Minaar is as good as Kani in his expression of his character’s feelings, which are considerably more convoluted given both his more privileged background and the unhappy accident in which he was involved.
It is in this context, towards the end of the play, that some uncharacteristically broad strokes in Fugard’s analysis of the racial tensions that have made an already complex situation more complicated jar – both with the flow of the piece to that point and with the many other more nuanced takes on the subject in the playwright’s other work.
That aside, though, The Train Driver appeals for its gentle intimacy (there are plenty of passionate outbursts, particularly from Roelf, but they are part of the evolution of the men’s relationship and so fit the bill) and its naked emotional core. In the latter regard, the tragedy – the only word for it – of individuals (South Africans or otherwise) never knowing or acknowledging the value of others because they haven’t bothered to try and understand them is the facet of the piece that stays with you once the lights come up.