Some works of art are inspired by glimpses of beauty. Some by a strong belief about the social mechanics of our world. Others are breathed to life by moments that shock and disturb us – possibly as an attempt to digest those images of horror – and the artwork remains forever steeped in that unsettling air. Playland, a masterful but taxing play by Athol Fugard, falls firmly into the latter category.
Inspired by a photograph of South African troops filling a mass grave with young victims of attacks in Namibia, Playland refers to a part of our history that many of us prefer to forget. It is sobering to realize that some of those soldiers of the apartheid regime are still walking amongst us.
Gideon le Roux (Albert Pretorius) is one of those, the walking dead. He used to be a corporal in a team stationed at Oshakati, home to one of the mass graves that he himself helped to fill. Playland takes place on New Years’s Eve of 1989, the year before Namibia gained its independence and the year that Gideon was sent back home. Alienated from his own culture and shadowed by the memories of the atrocities of war, he goes to a dubious amusement park to say good riddance to the worst year of his life. It is here, drinking to forget and searching for a true human connection, that he meets night watchman Marthinus Zoeloe (Mbulelo Grootboom). The two men, both from very different backgrounds and with personalities at opposite poles, start to interact. Inside a strained conversation unpicked by the protagonist Gideon, they reveal themselves through a combination of resistance and release, through shared moments: some mundane, some magical and many deeply meaningful.
The dialogue between these two characters carries the entire story, interrupted only by the voice of the amusement park owner crackling over the poor quality loudspeakers. They become mirrors held up to each other, and the more they reflect, they more parallels they find. Gideon the white guy, broken by war and Martinus the black man, silent and steadfast in his faith are both telling a different version of the same story – the question is how much they recognize it.
Director Albert Maritz, who describes Athol Fugard’s work as “filled with symbols; a poetic mirror” really understands how to harness the small space of the Fugard Theatre’s stage to draw the most rich symbolism in stage and script. From the start of the play, both Gideon and Martinus comment on the colour of the sky – blood red like doomsday – and comment on the heat while making repeated references to Hell, especially Martinus who uses the Bible as his crutch. The eerie stage, flooded with red at times, always remains red at the centre in Martinus’ tent, as if to symbolize that Hell is smouldering at the core of their psyches.
At first glance, Playland could appear to be another angst-ridden drama about racial relations, the old South Africa vs the New South Africa, about black vs white, but in fact it hits significantly deeper. It is a story about broken men, haunted by their own demons. It is about a human cry to be absolved from our sins, for a need to be accepted in a world where we deem ourselves unacceptable.
Do not be fooled by the title – there is nothing festive about Playland. It is raw, dark and disturbing. And it is also possibly some of the best and most unsettling acting I’ve seen in a while, especially from Albert Pretorius. His Gideon is a vision of a how war can break a man beyond repair, of a tortured soul trapped in purgatory.
The play has been translated from its original English into pure poetry by Saartjie Botha, which gives a whole different feel to it, being performed in “the language of the oppressor”. It adds a different element to Martinus’ side of the story, as he fluently and beautifully speaks the language of the person whose life he had taken. Theatre goers who don’t speak die taal needn’t worry – flashing surtitles translate the script back into English.
Playland is heavy viewing, even more so because the script and the acting is so good. You get to live with these characters, dragged by your hair through their own personal hells. To bring resolution to the intensity throughout, Athol Fugard gave Playland an extremely satisfying ending. In the very last minutes of the play, as the sun rises on a new year over the amusement park, so shines through the rays of hope, of reconciliation and of our innate beauty as humans. Strap yourself in – Playland is quite a ride.
Playland runs at the Fugard Theatre 23 January to 15 February 2014.