Twentieth Century Literature
A Scholarly and Critical Journal
Published by Hofstra University
Volume 39, Winter 1993, Number 4 Athol Fugard issue
Jack Barbera, Guest Editor
BY SUSAN HILFERTY
One of my first meetings with Athol Fugard best reveals his approach to theatre and theatre design. It was in New Haven in 1980, during a design meeting for A Lesson from Aloes , for which I was to do the costumes. The set designer’s rough model was the centerpiece of the meeting. I will never forget how Athol refined the design through that model, and his brilliant way of encouraging and directing his fellow artists.
After examining the model he beamed with excitement and said, “Yes, yes, this is exactly right.” Then he stared contemplatively at the model and said, “What if we just look at it without this one element.” He asked if we thought this was better. We agreed. “Yes, yes that’s much better.” He got quiet again and then took away another element. “What do you all think?” We agreed, “Yes, yes that’s better, too.” He smiled and then took away another piece and another piece and finally, still preserving the spirit of the idea, the design was whittled down to its essential nature. Together we had watched the discovery of the truth of the design. That is how Athol works with designers, with himself as a director and a writer, and with his fellow actors.
He allows actors incredible freedom to flesh out what they recognize in their characters. For Athol the rehearsal room is a sacred place where the mystery of creation happens. After the actors have explored the full range of their characters Athol begins to pare down through communication, debate, and charm, and finds the performances we will see on stage. It’s almost like reducing a sauce, removing all the extraneous ingredients. The result is that the actors and the characters are inextricably connected and married to the text.
I think the best example of this is the character of Marius in The Road to Mecca , the minister who wants to move Miss Helen from her home into a home for the aged. After several productions, Athol took on the role. I had assumed that when Athol cast himself he would create the Marius he had been trying to get from the other actors, that there was somehow one Marius he had been trying to reach, and that he was about to show us the way it should be done. My mistake. His Marius bore no resemblance to any other performance. He allowed Marius to reveal an emotional side: he was actually gentle, much warmer, and even funny. Athol’s performance was different, for instance, from Bob Peck’s at the National in London. Both had imparted a sense of danger to the character, but Bob’s Marius was a sinister, brooding edifice which later broke down. And when it broke it was startling in a way that Athol’s performance never was. Bob was never as moving as Athol. He was never able to reach the kind of humanity that Athol did. You see, Athol wasn’t storing up a definitive Marius. He is as surprised at the results of the rehearsal process as everyone else. He uses the rehearsals as a creative time for everyone involved. And ultimately each production of a play has a completely different flavor and feel because the breadth of Athol’s creativity includes his ability to use the talents of the creative people in each individual production.
In theatre the audience can experience a full range of psychological and emotional events. We experience an event without actually having to live through it. To me it’s one of the “mysteries” that the imagination can do so much. Theatre is only limited by the room given to the imagination. With Fugard’s plays I believe it is important to present the actors in a way that allows them to be uninhibited by the restraints of “reality.” When one usurps the territory of the imagination, the plays can lose their effectiveness. An early version of The Road to Mecca , a play “suggested by the life and work of Helen Martins of New Bethesda” (iii), put reproductions of the real Miss Helen’s statues on stage. Instead of allowing each person to imagine the art work, the design forced the audience to judge it. In fact the art itself is not important to the play. What is important is where the art work takes Miss Helen and where her character takes us. We are there to experience the ecstasy of her creative act. As Marius says to Helen, “There is more light in you than in all your candles put together” (70). It still gives me goose bumps to think about Yvonne Bryceland lighting all the candles during the climactic moment of that play. Miss Helen has an ecstatic moment that we are allowed to live through. And we experienced it through our liaison with Yvonne. This is the incredible power of Athol’s plays: the emotional content of what he is exploring is bigger than what is physically happening.
Anything that hampers rather than enhances this emotional content is a mistake. I am always saddened that some actors spend months perfecting a South African accent that only interferes with the effect of the play on the audience. Accents are just one thing that can create a barrier to Fugard’s plays. I think the production and the actors should be wide open. Fully exposed. The emotions of the play should go directly into the viewer’s system, intravenously almost. You should just be flat-out connected to what you are watching, without interference.
Too often the scenery especially creates a kind of interference between the audience and the play. I felt this way when I saw the setting for the first version of A Place with the Pigs . I knew the set was too much. I knew it was too real. I knew the world Athol was writing about was happening inside a man’s brain. It didn’t require anything representational. It didn’t require a realistic pigsty. As physically beautiful as the design was, it was too much. It overwhelmed the need for a strong emotional difference between each scene. One of the main elements of the script of A Place with the Pigs , a major ingredient of the text, is the graffiti that Pavel scribbles on the walls of the pigsty as the scenes and the years pass. These graffiti change from a calendar to the number of flies that he’s killed to pornography about pigs. They should literally show the state of Pavel’s mind. They are not realistic images. Unfortunately, in the gorgeous pigsty of the first production, you couldn’t even notice the graffiti. They had no impact at all, when in fact they should have been BAM right in your face. After this production I felt I was charged with designing Athol’s plays.
When I designed My Children! My Africa! with Athol it was immediately clear that it was not important for the world to be represented realistically. I thought of it as a tennis match. It needed a simple, defined area with a boundary line around the place where the action happened. As actors stepped over the line, they were in whatever world they needed to be. The set could go from being a classroom to being someone’s home. Change would happen simply by putting a chair down or moving a bench. The world of the schoolroom, Isabel’s home, and the specifics of a mountaintop did not have to be represented on stage. These places would be created by the actors and audience in the audience’s imagination. It was important that the scene changes be immediate, that they not affect the rhythm of the language, even though the play moved from location to location. I knew I had to use something analogous to a film wipe, that would allow a scene to end and a new scene to begin. So I used a half-curtain. There was nothing inherently magical about it, it’s an old theatrical gesture, but it worked. It worked because it was so simple.
In the treatment and detailing of this curtain, I kept thinking of the beautiful word “pentimento.” When a mark is put on a piece of paper and then erased there is always a trace of that mark in the grain of the surface. The memory of the mark still reverberates. That is the meaning of pentimento. I dyed the curtain green like a green chalk board or like a landscape of that world. I took white paint and then painted a rectangle on the surface of the curtain so that it looked like things were written in chalk and then erased, written and then erased, so that this curtain had a history, the history of a schoolroom. The history of the written and spoken word. This was subtle, physically beautiful, and so simple that it did not have a heavy presence. And because it was not so specific, it allowed the curtain to be whatever the audience wanted it to be: a landscape, a chalkboard, or even wallpaper. The floor was a platform that was the color of the red South African dirt, to evoke the Karoo in a simple abstract way. There were two poles, the curtain strung between, creating the tension of a sporting event. Overhead there was a bare grid of lights the same size as the platform below, that compressed and energized the space between.
The major leap in the evolution of the design was the choice to have the actors on stage at all times. This emphasized the sense that you were watching an empty theatrical space that was about to be inhabited by actors. These three actors came out, they looked at each other, Mr. M started to ring his school bell, and as soon as he did the characters sprang into action in the middle of a debate. It was a wild noisy moment. Then, when his scene was finished, Mr. M went and sat on his bench. We put a bench on each side of the stage. The actors would come off and sit, the way tennis players or boxers step off the court or ring and sit on the sidelines and then jump back in when their time comes. This raised the ante. It made the presence of the actors increasingly important. It changed the timing, which became more precise, but, more important, it changed the quality of the final exits.
Mr. M’s final stage direction reads, “They kill him ” (70). That’s all. But because his permanent presence had come to mean so much during the course of the play, when he leaves the stage completely it is devastating. All he did was walk off the stage, but it carried the finality of death. Later Thami ran off, leaving Isabel alone onstage. She gave her final speech in an empty, fully lit, vast space. After she said her final goodby to Mr. M, she turned around and walked off. It was the loneliest, emptiest space in the world, and you knew she was walking on the longest road in the world.
Since My Children! My Africa! , designing for Athol has taken on a pattern for me that is always exciting, sometimes terrifying. Usually I’ll see a manuscript before it’s completed, but for Playland Athol and I had to begin our dialogue before I read even a partial manuscript. He was deeply entrenched in the writing and was not prepared to let anyone read the script. But he was returning soon to South Africa, so we had to begin our dialogue. Since the play was set in and around an amusement park, we planned an expedition to Coney Island to act as a background for our discussion, and possibly to provide research and inspiration.
We got on the subway for the long ride out to Brooklyn from Manhattan, and by the time we had reached Coney Island we had already sketched out the essential design. It was Athol’s description of the form of the play that triggered the process. The scenes move back and forth between the outskirts of an amusement park, inhabited by a night watchman, and inside the amusement park itself. We immediately got into a heated discussion about where the scenes inside the amusement park should take place. Athol described the white character, Gideon le Roux, as being, during the park scenes, physically upstage behind the night watchman’s area. I expressed my strong negative reaction to this idea because I knew these were intimate emotional moments that had to connect directly with the audience. The audience had to be a part of the sequence of events. They couldn’t be distanced. It felt wrong that Gideon was not directly relating to the audience. I also had a strong sense that there was a circling quality to many of the scenes. Like a moth to a lamp, Gideon is drawn to the night watchman. So an upstage-downstage relationship between them seemed wrong. They should be in two worlds, one in orbit around the other, inexorably connected. At that point I knew the amusement park had to surround the night watchman’s camp, but allow the camp still to be present. This would also allow the scenes in the park the downstage intimacy they needed. I used a “boardwalk” that came right down into the audience and circled the night watchman’s area. It was here, with the night watchman still visible, that the amusement-park sequences happened. Lights and sound played a spectacular role in making the audience feel they were going on a ride with Gideon. And then, with just a step, Gideon was back in the world of the night watchman.
This design changed as each production took place in a different venue with its own configuration of space. When the play went to the Donmar in London, and the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York City, the downstage position was weak instead of intimate. In these spaces we had to eliminate the boardwalk circling the dirt box, but still retain the sense of Gideon moving around. We lifted him up so that he was separated from the night watchman, above it all, looking down, but moving back and forth in the space, in the tangle of images made of scraps of corrugated iron, wood, and layered “Playland” posters. Layers and layers of them. A subtle target pattern in the wall reinforced the circling, almost like the iris of a camera. Thus in different spaces we adapted our design to achieve the same theatrical ends, using different mechanisms.
Designing a Fugard play is about finding the underlying visual and theatrical elements that can amplify the text. It’s a process of distilling ideas. The sets cannot just be “nothing.” They influence the movement of the actors as well as the movement of the fourth dimension—time. The stage must be primed to receive and present the actors and the text. Set design is a process affording the same joy an artist feels in capturing the complexities of human movement in a single line in a drawing. Finding the essential elements of a text can be more difficult than finding the realistic details of a world, but doing so is more expressive.
AF and Susan Hilferty on the set of Playland , La Jolla Playhouse production, 1992. (Photo © T. Charles Erickson.)