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Athol Fugard steps back onto the stage in The Shadow of the Hummingbird, a two-hander about the imagination and a man who loves in strange and crooked ways, writes Theresa Smith.
‘THERE are two pieces of dialogue that you are adlibbing, and I think you’re adlibbing them better than the script,” says director Paula Fourie to actor and playwright, Athol Fugard.
He is sitting on a chair on the makeshift stage of the rehearsal space, Fourie is cross-leggead on the floor in front of him, Marviantos Baker lying on his stomach between them. As Fourie explains, Baker makes notes on his script and Fugard scratches his head, deep in thought.
Eventually, Fugard admits he has no thoughts on the matter either way, she can change the dialogue or not, depending on
what she thinks will work better.
Later, in an interview, Fourie calls Fugard surprisingly unprecious about his work when it comes to separating playwright from actor. He takes direction well, she says, looking me straight in the eye while Fugard jokingly mutters that there is a different director who wouldn’t agree.
It has been 15 years since Fugard last stepped on the boards, in the clearly autobiographical The Captain’s Tiger in the US.
For The Shadow of the Hummingbird Fourie wrote the prologue, drawing on Fugard’s notes over the past
almost 20 years.
“She scoured the books, choosing little moments that would illuminate an aspect of the old man’s character, putting together
a composite picture,” Fugard described the process.
He wrote the next act three years ago, but like any play it has evolved across rehearsals and a previous run in New Haven in Connecticut, US.
For that run the grandson character was played by 10-year-old twins alternating the role, but in South Africa they have cast the character older, with Stellenbosch University graduate Baker playing a 13-year-old in his professional debut.
The play is apolitical, concentrating on the loving relationship between grandfather and grandson, dedicated to Fugard’s own now 10-year-old grandson Gavyn, whom he calls Boba (just like in the play).
It starts with Oupa – a retired South African teacher living in the US – coming into his study, having woken up from a dream about shadows.
“He vaguely recalls having made an entry about shadows. He comes in here, looking for that particular notebook and he pulls out different notebooks and reads different sections from them.
“So, you actually build up a character, you get to know the old man before the boy arrives.
“From the moment the boy arrives is the play I wrote, so it’s really a joint effort,” he explains.
“It’s going to have books all over the place,” he points at longtime friend and collaborator, Saul Radomsky’s tiny set model.
“That looks very tidy, of course, but when I’m finished with it, believe me it’s going to be an untidy little room in which an old man is living his last years.”
Throughout the play Oupa tries to capture the boy’s imagination, trying very hard to clarify philosophical metaphors, all in the name of explaining that beauty is fleeting and to make clear Oupa’s definition of his love for his family.
They spot a hummingbird outside the window, which we will see as a shadow on the curtain.
“They assure me it’s going to be very impressive,” he says of the technology being used to create the bird’s shadow.
He is an avid birdwatcher himself, animatedly describing the shorebirds he used to see in the wetlands around San Diego where his daughter and grandson still live. He recently relocated back to Nieu Betesda in the Karoo, though his travelling schedule would be considered gruelling by someone half his age.
The run of Shadow of the Hummingbird will see him travel to Joburg and then Bloemfontein.
“Oupa is not Athol Fugard, but he is Oupa. It’s all a bit ambiguous,” says Fourie.
“We do hope that this will still be transplantable onto another actor.”
For the play she removed place names and people he referenced in his notebooks: “Also, Athol writes in his notebooks about five things: one is play writing, the other one is acting and directing.
“Then, he writes about nature, he writes about people that he loves and he writes about his complex relationship to himself and that always blurs with the nature.”
For the play she ignored entries about play writing and acting, concentrating on two entries about romantic love: “I took out names and gave them to Oupa. So in, a sense, the character of Oupa without the prologue would still have the ambiguous relationship
to you,” said Fourie.
“Oh, yes, certainly,’ agreed Fugard.
“Athol always says ‘your life is a treasure chest,’” says Fourie.
“It’s all capital a writer has, his or her own life. They can disguise it in various ways, pretend to create other characters, but a writer is basically writing about himself or herself all the time,” explains Fugard.
“Don’t you call this, after Master Harold, one of your most autobiographical plays?” asks Fourie.
“I don’t know… yes, it is, but it’s also ambiguous in its autobiographic nature. Whereas, Master Harold, that was such a remove between the grown up and the little 10-year-old boy with two black men in the tea room.
“The distance was so great, ag, I didn’t mind saying anything and I told the truth. The embarrassing truth about my father and my mother, but there was a remove from them. I wrote that when they were both dead,” said Fugard.
“I suppose you’re not nearly as stubborn, or irascible as Oupa,” counters Fourie.
“I think I am,” he says.
“No, you’re not,” she smiles.
“You told me that a couple of times,” he laughs.
“That was yesterday and yesterday is behind us,” she starts laughing too. “You’re not as stubborn as Oupa and you’re
not as pedantic.”
“Somebody should write a play about the writing of this play because it’s an interesting story, blurring the lines between biography, autobiography and fiction,” he counters.
• Shadow of the Hummingbird at The Barney Simon Theatre, Joburg, July 30 to August 17 and at Pacofs, Bloemfontein, August 20 to 31.