DIRECTORS: Paula Fourie & Athol Fugard

CAST: Athol Fugard, Marviantoz Baker

VENUE: The Fugard Theatre

UNTIL: July 26

RATING: ****

IT SELDOM happens that audiences attend the premiere of a play written, directed, and performed after an absence of 15 years by an icon of the South African stage at a theatre that bears his name.

Such is the experience afforded Cape Town’s theatregoers at the Fugard Theatre, where playwright Athol Fugard demonstrates his prowess as actor and scriptwriter.

The Shadow of the Hummingbird is an unusual and highly appealing mélange of semi-autobiographical fiction and personal philosophy distilled from a lifetime of experience.

From his first appearance, the octogenarian lead wins over his audience by the authority and verisimilitude of his performance as Oupa, of whom Fugard says, “He is not Athol Fugard, and yet he is.”

Plot is subordinate to dialogue, as this is not an “action play”, but rather a dramatised presentation of a particular worldview: the preface, written by co-director Paula Fourie, is crafted from a selection of writings found in Fugard’s notebooks, some dating back to the 1960s.

What could easily be a self-indulgent and tedious reading becomes an engrossing text, because each excerpt is kept brief, and the illusion of spontaneity is created by random visits to different bookshelves in the study where the work is set.

One has the impression that each new piece comes as a surprise to Oupa himself in the pleasure of rediscovery shared with his listeners.

Meticulous attention to detail is apparent in the set, for which Saul Radomsky must take full marks. Imaginatively lit by Mannie Manim, Oupa’s personal space bears all the evidence of a cosy, lived-in intimacy – surely a sensitive reproduction of Fugard’s own study in Southern California, where he lived until last year.

The transience of human life, and reminiscences, feature strongly in The Shadow of the Hummingbird, as does handing on the creative baton to a younger generation, ultimately the only antidote to mortality.

That is where Oupa’s adolescent grandson Boba (Marviantoz Baker) comes in as a counterpoint to the old man nearing the end of his career. Boba, at the beginning of his, struggles to articulate his inspiration for a story about a dragon… Baker and Fugard interact sweetly with playfulness, complicity and mutual affection as the older man’s wise remarks on shadows versus reality underpin the surface levity.

The American hummingbird regularly visiting Oupa’s window invites reflection on wider issues, notably love.

The not-unforeseen denouement may be considered too sentimental for some tastes, but its impact is leavened by the flashes of humour preceding it, and the sense of accomplishment that softens its sadness.

This is vintage Fugard.

• The Cape Town run of The Shadow of the Hummingbird is sold out, but travellers might be able to catch it at The Market Theatre in Joburg from July 30 to August 16.