Fugard at the Fugard

a post that’s actually about writing and not really a review at all

Drive or walk around the city and you can see my work. A blazing sunset with a thorn tree silhouetted against it. Three small figures can be seen under it, while a flock of birds pass overhead. “Athol Fugard’s The Bird Watchers” the title states in letters taller even than municipal regulations would have them. It’s not the kind of poster I generally like, I’m not a fan of landscapes and the iconography is a touch too clichéd (I should probably mention that I am the designer, but I’ll leave that hanging). But it does make sense in the context of the story Fugard tells, if not with the scenography of Saul Radomsky. Fugard is a writer driven by the wisdom: “write what you know” and in the Birdwatchers he draws on the setting and memories of his conversations with Barney Simon and Yvonne Bryceland. The Central character is Garth, a writer revisiting a time with Lenny, a director, and Rosalyn, an actress. But these roles don’t sum up the relationship between the 3 of them. The play comes in two acts split by an interval and an understaffed scene change. The first half is set in the real world, under the unGwenya tree of Garth’s home and the second is a return to that place and time by an aged Garth in his imagination. The stark simplicity of the stump of the tree and the sear decay of his re-imagined home was biting. The story is a self-flagellation as Garth regrets words, attitudes, selfishness and wasted potential. What I found to be greatest flaw and also the most thought-provoking aspect of the production was this self-absorption, a feedback loop of pain. At one pointed I wanted to give Uncle Athol a hug, in part because a lot of his cutting words I’ve used on myself many times.

There’s this tremendous ego at work when I’m writing.  I’m creating a world of events that I think, believe, know are fascinating to others, are relevant, important and irreplaceable. Did I say Unique? Yes, I believe that too. Against the cacophony of cries that nothing is original, I believe my work is. We are all snowflakes. All writers believe it although they don’t all admit it.

I wasn’t absorbed by the story on stage, either emotionally or intellectually and at the close I wasn’t moved to my feet. But the naked self-portrait followed by the man himself blew the top off my head. Fugard emerged to handle the Q&A with a sneaky and witty answer to anticipated questions of autobiography: he was wearing the same clothes as the character Garth. Justin Cartwright lead the Q&A with Fugard, but we struggled to hear our host, even though Fugard was as clear as the actors had been.

Essentially my thoughts were caught up in this question: Why do we write what we write? Fugard tackles this quite early on. “Love her.” He tells us, referring to all the ugliness, despair and human decay the world has, personified for him in an encounter with a homeless woman. This idea, that writing needs to be driven by compassion, clicked for me. Looking at the plays I’ve seen recently I think that audiences have always known this. While the political satires become shrill or petty and the beautiful, witty pieces of escapist fantasy struggle to be understood, stories of simple compassion genuinely touch people. Look at London Road, look at …miskien. When writing doesn’t let itself love something, or when the director doesn’t see it or the actor doesn’t feel it can still be a lot of things, but it can’t change the audience.

There are a lot of other ideas I’m still processing, about performance styles, politics and morality. For now, let’s leave it on the lesson learned.

“Love her.”

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