Sunday, August 31, 2014

Ruminations on love and writing: interview with Athol Fugard

Athol Fugard as Oupa in
The Shadow of the Hummingbird
“This is the smallest play I've ever written, but it has generated more noise than the others. I never thought it would impact on people the way it has,” says playwright Athol Fugard. It’s an early weekday morning and I’m talking to him on the wide stoep of the guesthouse where’s he staying while he’s performing in The Shadow of the Hummingbird at the Market Theatre. He’s smoking on his pipe, and the sweet smelling tobacco wafts my way as we talk, mostly about this new play, and its genesis.  His partner, and collaborator on the play, Paula Fourie sits close by smoking.

At times, hadedas punctuate our conversation half way through, flying noisily through the air, screeching their presence at us, a far cry from the quiet shadows and suggestions of the hummingbirds which punctuate this latest play as motif throughout its gentle telling.   

On the surface, The Shadow of the Hummingbird is a quiet play. At just an hour in length, it’s set in two parts. The first sees an old man, a retired South African school teacher, Oupa, now living in retirement in California, played by Fugard himself. He’s kept notebooks for years – and is searching for a particular entry from among the clutter of books and notebooks in his room.

These excerpts are from Fugard’s actual unpublished notebooks – a habit he continues to maintain today. He likens the habit to what Virginia Woolf said about “capturing the image on the wing” and adds that keeping a notebook for writers is akin to the finger exercises of a pianist: “Writers must put pen to paper, capture the flower you’ve seen, the thought you’ve had. One of the questions I always ask young writers is whether they keep a notebook.” 

There’s something about a shadow that Oupa is seeking, and he can’t find it in the play.  He goes through many entries, reading fragments from each.  There are lists of bird sightings – Fugard is an avid bird-watcher – ruminations on death, on the meaningless of the turning of the new year, a paean to Port Elizabeth, love, the eager anticipation of having a grandchild, and the ever elusive search for the entry with the shadow, shadow as metaphor for life itself,  and then the final reckoning.

Paula Fourie, Fugard’s partner and
 co-writer of The Shadow of the Hummingbird
Fourie was responsible for writing the first section. Fugard had written the play, but it was too short to be performed, and it was decided that Fourie would edit and go through some of the notebooks, and combine them into the text, hitting upon the idea of Oupa reading the entries. Fourie worked through 20 years of unpublished books. However, as she explains to me, the process was an alchemy in terms of combining fiction and non-fictional elements. Oupa isn’t Fugard – so there were some changes, such as not including the notebook entries on rehearsals for The Captain’s Tiger, for instance. Fugard adds that this really is an example of the collaborative nature of theatre, that theatre itself is a collaborative form.

Fugard explains that there were two seminal images that served as the genesis of the play. When he was based in California, he was writing and kept being alerted to the shadow of hummingbirds flitting around the birdfeeder on the patio outside. “Every morning I watched the shadow for a few minutes.” He also remembered making an entry in my notebooks in the early 1960s when I was writing the Blood Knot – the last entry I read on stage – the seed stayed with me for days.”  

Returning to the play, Oupa’s search is interrupted by the arrival of his grandson, Boba (Marviantos Baker)  who instantly becomes part of a fun game the two appear to have played for years with Boba slaying his grandfather, now the teacher from the black lagoon! Fugard’s real grandson Gavyn served as the inspiration here for the grandson.

This was another opportunity to collaborate further, as Fugard notes. In the American version of the play, which was staged prior to its south African run, the role of the grandson was played by two 10-year-old twins alternating in the role – because of their youth, they served more as foils to the role of Oupa. But Baker, although being 23, could look 13, and thus became an older grandson, “which took the play to a new level, and opened up areas of the play, with Marviantos making his own contributions,” says Fugard. 

On stage, this fun banter and play turns to serious talk as watch the two navigate the realities of their relationship – Oupa is estranged from his “stupid” son – and bonds with his beloved grandson only through these secret meetings. The love between grandfather and grandson, the two is palpable and fierce.

Athol Fugard takes the role of Oupa alongside Marviantos Baker as
Boba, the grandson, in The Shadow of the Hummingbird
This is a cerebral work – and in this last section Oupa quotes an allegory of Plato’s to the boy, and then goes through War and Peace, holding up the book as a standard to this young child, who, in his youth, doesn’t always get all the allusions and references Oupa wants to impart. This is also as much a play about that bond as with the final reckoning and slow acceptance of what’s inevitable, after a long life.

But it’s the thread of love that runs through the play alongside the search for shadows that intrigues and I want to ask about the line of love in the story. In one notebook entry, we hear: “Living through another Death and once again I know that it is only through love that I will resurrect myself.” The vicissitudes and habit of love continue to echo through the story, and then, towards the end, Oupa quotes from Tolstoy’s War and Peace: “What is ‘love’? he thought. Love hinders death. Love is life. All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love. Everything is, everything exists. . .everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.”  

Fugard says, “Love is the only energy I’ve ever used in writing – if I don’t love that individual on paper, it doesn’t work. But it has presented wonderful challenges, for example in Boesman and Lena, loving Lena, a victim of a dark and complex relationship is easy, and yet with Boesman, the character, I also fell in love with him, although that was a severe challenge. And, in writing, I have to leave negative emotions outside the door, hate, anger, jealousy, it leaves nothing on the paper.” 

For the future, Fugard continues to leave a trail on paper. There’s a new play due to be performed in March next year, and he has an idea for a second novel, perhaps to be titled, Dry Remains, the title taken from the five stages of decay the body goes through after death, from fresh to bloat, active decay, advanced decay and finally dry remains.  “Maybe we can look at a life in the same way,” he muses. (begin poss cut: His first, novel, Tsotsi, was turned into a successful film in 2005. 

But for now, Fugard is treading the boards again – an acting role he took on because, “I felt I could do a better job of Oupa than anyone else. He’s performed the role from the US to South Africa, and describes the first performance in the US as “like being in a holding cell of the gallows. But Oupa posses me so completely on stage. In a strange sense I know exactly what I’m doing.”

“Perhaps,” says Fourie, “Oupa is a version of you, what you could have become?” She’s referring to the fact that Fugard may have become a teacher.

“Partly that,” he answers, “there’s something else though.”

As he says goodbye and steps through the wooden doors of the guesthouse, I remember the other phrases he used early on in referring to himself, and the mix between him and character he plays. Eyes laughing he’d said, “It’s me in my various disguises – as an old schoolteacher or you can also call me Helen Martins in drag!” in an allusion to the play, A Road to Mecca. Or, another line he used to refer to himself, eyes, twinkling, taking delight in the strange twist of words of juxtaposition of thought: “A man who loves in strange and crooked ways.”  

First published in The Sunday Independent and Weekend Argus, August 17 2014 

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