THE TRAIN DRIVER
UNITED PLAYERS, Jericho Arts Centre, March 24 - April 16
My Two Pence
My Two Cents
By Robert Blackburn
For the first time in a long while, I went into a play knowing next to nothing about the story, the characters or the author. It was very refreshing to watch 'The Train Driver' by Athol Fugard with no prejudices and a clean slate. I'm happy to say it didn't disappoint but then again didn't set the world alight. There were some issues that came up for me throughout whilst still being an engaging night at the theatre.
If you are a bit of a theatre lightweight and generally unhappy sitting for more than two hours, then is this play for you. It went by with a click of the fingers, sometimes even at an alarming rate. Someone had clearly mentioned to Paul Herbert, who played the Train Driver- Roelf; that South Africans talk quick and talk quick he did. But he had to be the driving force for the narrative and push the scenes forward with his inner turmoil over the events that led him to the outskirts of this dirt-poor shanty town. In fact he had done it so well that I wish he had slowed down towards the latter half of Act Two and played with some possible moments in pauses that he had more than earned. I would have liked to have seen him still, unblinking, awash with guilt in the lights as he talked to the spirits in the dead of night. But you can only review what you see and it was still an admirable, watchable performance.
Playing opposite was Pasi Clayton Gunguwo as Simon, the gravedigger, who has to host Herbert as the unwelcome guest amongst his graves for the unnamed. Pasi was the calm amongst Herbert's storm. His performance was nothing spectacular but serviced the text as it needed to be. Perhaps a little more hostility was required at the interruption of Herbert off the top to give somewhere for Pasi to take his more gentle, diplomatic approach throughout the play. But his best chance at delivering what would have been a justified rebuttal of the situation he found himself in at play's close was snatched away by the inexplicable choice to have the vast majority of his closing speech delivered via voiceover. I don't understand why, it didn't add anything and took away from what might have been a more entertaining and interesting ending.
Perhaps the biggest star was John R. Taylor's set. What an immersive, creative set for a Jericho show. Waiting for the show to begin in the dimmed lights I felt a real sense anticipation of the two characters who would appear on this jagged wasteland. Poor, gutted, buried and forgotten. And it was all there, all ready to be exploited but then it wasn't because the lighting showed every audience members face and the facade was lost. Partly owing to the thrust nature of the landscape (there was no stage) there was obviously no way to get the lights just on Taylor's architecture without sacrificing something to get rid of the audience.
It was a competent show. All the little flavours were there ready to be set off and explode into a cacophony of life. White guilt, black resentment, anger, begrudging acceptance, sorrow but it never really got itself out of a second gear. There seemed to be a lingering fear hanging over the scape like a worrisome mist that if they really went for it then they wouldn't be able to control what they might unleash. Still it did finish with the best couplet I've heard a play end with- “I've got no job and now I've got no spade.” Thankfully Pasi was allowed to say it.
By George Duncan
As we walked onto the thrust performance space toward our seats I was entranced by John R Taylor's glorious set. Dips and rises in the stage gave the barren landscape texture; complimented by the particles of rocks, bricks and old car parts that littered the make-shift graveyard inhabited by Pasi Clayton Gunguwo's character Simon. His living space is a shack with only one full wall and an assortment of pots, canned fruit and tins of beans, and is fully moveable along train tracks; pushing the action closer to the audience during the intimate night time scenes.
The illusion of environment is further helped by a well thought out backdrop of sounds, mostly those of the wild dogs circling ever closer to try and dig up the bodies buried in Simon's backyard – this is why he weighs down the graves with the rocks. The sound engineer also picked some very atmospheric songs to play over the scene changes which evoked images of parties and raves in the nearby town – although I personally would have appreciated less of a brusque changeover. The music did start and stop quite abruptly and it might have been nice to have had it playing quietly in the
background of some scenes.
The play focuses on the very brief relationship between two men; a gravedigger Simon and a train driver who has recently run down a woman and child by accident and is trying to find their resting place. Both actors took on their respective roles with a lot of energy and understanding. Gunguwo's performance was rather steady and nonchalant – but I'm sure that most people would act this way if a stranger suddenly came upon their place of work and home with an odd proposition. Paul Herbert's portrayal of Roelf is a good foil – his anger and desperation are very honest and strong.
I found both performances to be true and touching – it is such an interesting premise to have these characters of two different worlds colliding. The arc of the story certainly hints that boundaries might be pushed and walls between race and culture broken down, but actually this is not that kind of story. Roelf begins to understand something right near the end, he begins to acknowledge the tough life that led to the woman's decision to end hers. Interestingly enough though Simon does not. In spite of a kindness and a growing bond of sorts between the men his life would have gone back to normal had certain events not transpired. There was definitely a through-line projected that Simon just wanted Roelf to get on
with it and leave him in peace.
Overall I think as with most two-handers, these two men deserve a hearty handshake. It is a hard thing to pull off sometimes; to keep energy up not only on stage but filtering into the audience as well when you haven't a larger cast to share the burden with. I do think the direction could have gone further; some of the moments seemed to zip by and the audience was not given a chance to bathe in the newness of what had just been said. I feel a few more moments of pause and reflection would have fed into the awkwardness that inevitably must be felt by the characters being thrown
together in such close quarters.
It was immensely refreshing to a see a play like 'The Train Driver' performed in this city – we so often get caught up in the classic plays of American and British tradition that we forget how poignant and important stories from other countries are. Bravo United Players for this bold choice!