DIE LAASTE KARRETJIEGRAF. Directed by Athol Fugard, with Erica Wessels, Ivan Abrahams, Riaan Visman, Richard September, Ephraim Gordon and Kim Pietersen. At the Fugard Theatre until February 23. TYRONE AUGUST reviews.

IN WHAT may be his last play, Athol Fugard brings together some of the key elements in his writing over the years. Once again it takes place in his beloved Eastern Cape, with his gaze unflinchingly on the plight of a marginalised and forgotten group of people.

This time, the focus is on the sheep-shearers who used to move around with their families from one farm to another in the Karoo. It is prompted by a story told to Fugard by his mother, and grounded in an anthropological study by Riana Steyn (whom he generously credits as a co-writer).

At the centre of Die Laaste Karretjiegraf are four siblings: Pienkies (Visman), Toek-Toek (September) and the twins Outjie (Gordon) and Rokkies (Pietersen). They are cared for by their grandmother Ouma Mieta, as their father, Koot (Abrahams), is in jail.

We meet the children when they are placing stones on their grandmother’s grave. As they mourn her death, a brutal tale of poverty and suffering unfolds. Their only source of income was Ouma’s monthly pension. Sometimes all there was to eat was a pot of thin porridge, “wat al dunner word” (which just gets thinner).

What made it even worse for Ouma Mieta was that she suffered from rheumatism. Living in a dwelling with a corrugated iron roof only added to her pain and discomfort.

When their grandmother dies, Pienkies tries to comfort the other children by telling them that it was a welcome release from her constant suffering. Now utterly alone in the pitiless Karoo, the children have to fend for themselves. As the eldest child, Pienkies does what he can to ensure their survival. What makes it even more difficult is that Toek-Toek is brain-damaged as a result of a childhood injury.

It is during this harrowing period that their father is released from jail. The play takes an even more traumatic turn: it emerges that Koot was imprisoned for the murder of his second wife during a drunken rampage (in fact, he is also blamed for the death of his first wife – the children’s mother).

It is into this scenario, fraught with anger and resentment, that there is a visitor from the past. Sarah (Wessels), who once lived in the area, knows Koot’s family well, and later even did research on such itinerant families in the Karoo.

When she meets Koot at Ouma Mieta’s grave, their shared memories initially make their encounter an affectionate one. However, it eventually descends into a raging confrontation. Sarah bitterly blames Koot for the deaths of his wives and the desperate plight of his children.

However, even though he acknowledges his guilt, Koot also lashes out fiercely at Sarah. He is no caricature: Fugard allows him to eloquently speak for himself. Whether or not you agree with Koot, he raises poignant questions about crime, punishment and forgiveness.

Where the story is weaker, though, is when it tries to provide some kind of justification for Sarah’s onslaught. Attributing her rage to the death of her sister in a car accident as the result of a drunk driver seems a little too contrived. Was her closeness to Koot’s family not sufficient reason to assail Koot?

The same question can be raised about Sarah’s university background. Did Fugard really have to make her an anthropology student? Instead of giving her additional insight into the lives of Koot and his family, this only makes her come across as a voyeur.

Yes, yes. Sarah is based on real life: she is very obviously an imaginatively recreated version of Steyn. But this persona does not lend any intimacy to the lives of the play’s characters. In fact, it only adds distance; it makes Sarah seem interested in their lives not out of empathy, but out of a detached, professional interest.

Obviously Fugard was attempting to find a way to allow the lives of people who come from very different backgrounds – culturally and otherwise – to intersect.

However, the result is not altogether satisfactory. Sarah’s dialogue also fails to engage the audience at times. It comes across as a judgemental diatribe rather than a moving exposition on Koot’s culpability. Wessels’s delivery, in some instances, does not help either.

This is not entirely her fault, though. At times, the language in the play comes across as a little too stilted (this is Fugard’s first play in Afrikaans).

But ultimately there can be no doubt that, in Koot, Fugard has created another memorable character. He is wonderfully brought to life by Abrahams, who imbues the character with an intriguing blend of vulnerability and strength.

The roles of Koot’s children are also performed with conviction, and Wessels – as the catalyst for the denouement of the play – is generally alive to the various challenges that her role places on her.

Saul Radomsky’s innovative set design and Mannie Manim’s minimalist lighting also help to depict the desolation in the lives of the characters and in the landscape.

But, despite all the despair and degradation, the play still holds out hope and the promise of redemption. After all these years, Fugard still believes in the resilience and strength of the human spirit.

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