I have made a discovery bewilderingly late in life: how free a medium the stage really is, and how infinite its possibilities of storytelling. The new South Africa involves liberation on many levels. I want to deal myself into that freedom. I am now playing with the freedom of the stage and it might be characteristic of all I am still going to do in the theatre.”
That is pointed testimony from any creative artist deliberating the fusion of political and aesthetic freedom in South Africa today; that it should come from the 70-year-old Athol Fugard, whose playwriting career over an astonishing five decades was shaped and driven by the exigencies of resisting apartheid, make the testimony remarkable.
True to his word, Fugard’s new play Sorrows and Rejoicings, which premieres this week, marks an epoch in his career — and in the unfolding of a distinct South African culture.
For the plays of Fugard — South Africa’s finest playwright and arguably the greatest living English-speaking dramatist — are intimately bound up with our recent past and are crucial to our grasp of the apartheid era. From the desperate vision of township life in No Good Friday (1958) though to the intricate cross-race dynamics dissected in Playground (1993), Fugard tackled every hidden corner of life under that grossest of sociopolitical (dis)orders, creating as he went a record of inestimable value.
Last week with benefit of hindsight — and the corrosive self-scrutiny he has always exercised in his (incompletely) collected Diaries — the achingly honest Fugard described, in conversation in between rehearsals, what that record meant for his art. “Under apartheid, the artist was called on to bear witness: you had to get up and get the facts out. The facts would speak for themselves.
“Look at any of those plays — No Good Friday, Boesman and Lena, The Road to Mecca, Master Harold and the Boys — they’re slices of realism, slabs of realism, they are each in their own way a well-made play. These were useful tools in the old South Africa.”
Poignantly, Fugard recalls his first reaction to the democratic elections of 1994: “I felt I had become South Africa’s first literary redundancy. It took me a while to realise that was a load of bullshit, that there are stories that need to be told just as urgently as before — and new ways to tell them.”
For Fugard, Sorrows and Rejoicings takes further that post-apartheid freeing up that he traces first in the play Valley Song (1995). “There, I begin to play with myself as myself and as a character in the drama. I took that further in The Captain’s Tiger  — talking to the audience and to myself at age 20 on board ship.
“Sorrows and Rejoicings is much concerned with memory: the story moves backwards in time and resolves itself in the past. Next time, I will be immediately conscious of how free I want to be in the way I tell a story. I will play with time, space and silence — always the essential elements of theatre.”
Sorrow and Rejoicings charts a fraught triangular relationship over three decades and two continents, and indeed moves between spaces, times and silences — appropriately, because the play’s theme is that of exile and displacement. These issues are vital to a South African writer of Fugard’s generation: “The play is a kind of wake after the death of Dawid, my imaginary Afrikaner poet-in-exile, and draws on my memories of so many artists I knew who left the country and who dried up creatively as a result.”
Fugard, who has taught creative writing programmes for several years at the University of California in San Diego, appreciates a certain irony in his position with regard to exile. South Africa’s most famous playwright and a regional writer to boot — “I am rooted in the Eastern Cape, I can stand on a street corner in Port Elizabeth and read the stories going past” — can barely afford to live in South Africa. He resides in the United States, where he is feted and his work continuously produced.
“America has been good to me, but I could no sooner write about America than fly to the moon. I don’t have the code. I was pressurised by the [South African] government to leave on a one-way exit visa under apartheid; I would have died creatively if I had. This play feeds on my own complex feelings about exile.”
Sorrows and Rejoicings — “the title works on many levels, but right now what strikes me is sorrow for the old South Africa, rejoicings for the new” –is also heartfelt testimony to Fugard’s sense of himself as a writer living one of literature’s abiding themes: that of age and mortality. For exile kills off Fugard’s character Dawid, it seems, both actually and creatively.
“I was prompted to write this play by the death of a close relative and it came together in three weeks — a short time for me. Getting old is an incredibly exciting adventure: people have got it all wrong. I have more energy, because I can see more clearly what I still have to do. As with all good theatre, I am going on a journey that I haven’t been on before.”
At the Baxter Theatre Centre this month, playgoers may witness a memorable station of that remarkable South African voyage.
Sorrows and Rejoicings opens at the Baxter Theatre Centre, Cape Town, Tel: (021) 685Â 7880 on August 28 and moves to the Tricyle Theatre, London, next year. The American production will be performed in New York this December.