Exits and Entrances – Athol Fugard
Reflections on theatre and apartheid
This article is from 2007.
Athol Fugard is perhaps the poet laureate of South African theatre. Since the 1950s his work has stood as a testimony to resistance to tyranny, with pieces such as Master Harold and the Boys, The Island and Sizwe Bansi is Dead winning multiple accolades and awards internationally. Through the days of apartheid, his work and relentless political activism at times made life uncomfortable for Fugard, yet the exposure of inequality that his work represented seems to have kept him going. Since the rise of the Rainbow Coalition, we’ve seen less of his work on British stages, and on the face of it, the European debut of this 2004 piece appears less instantly political.
The play amounts to a thinly veiled biographical sketch of Fugard’s youthful association with André Huguenet, a noted South African actor of the 50s, who struggled, alongside Fugard, to establish a new form of drama. But is it just a tribute to an old friend? Fugard is keen to dispel the notion. ‘To a large extent, it is a memory play, but I’d like to think it’s a lot of things in addition to that,’ he says. ‘The period in which I encountered Andre was a very decisive one for me. It certainly found and defined for me the way in which South African theatre had to change, and mutate in terms of its structure, and it certainly has done that. It seemed to reflect a time when the whole country had to make radical changes and departures. This change happened politically, but before it happened to politics it had already happened to theatre.’
Fugard stresses that the play recounts as much a difficult period of history as a story of the old theatre. ‘It was excessively difficult at times,’ he says. ‘To get an audience or a reputable producer for a play was almost impossible. So, with things like my earliest play, Blood Knot, we were reduced to switching a light on and off as our biggest technical requirement. But later it became worse, because as the political atmosphere in the country deteriorated, it became more intolerant. With plays like The Island we were playing in garages to domestic servants before we received any kind of recognition.’ This is an affectionate back stage story, but also one of political and aesthetic struggle.
Assembly Rooms, 623 3030, 6–27 Aug (not 23), 3.20pm, £12–£13 (£10–£11). Previews 3–4 Aug, £5.