SINCE about the age of eight, writer/director Harry Kalmer had known about anti-apartheid activist Bram Fischer.
His interest intensified when literature about Fischer became more available in the post-apartheid period, and even more so after he read Fischer’s famous 1966 speech from the dock of the Pretoria Supreme Court, before he was imprisoned.
So it was a long-time dream come true when he was able to stage a play honouring the icon, Die Bram Fischer Wals, at The Vryfees in Bloemfontein last year. It went on to win a string of accolades at the country’s Afrikaans arts festivals.
This year, Kalmer will present the play in English for the first time at the National Arts Festival. Its title is The Bram Fischer Waltz.
“We felt having the story only in Afrikaans was restrictive, because his is an important story for all South Africans,” explained Kalmer.
The Joburg-based playwright said he’d always been intrigued by Fischer.
“In the 1980s, he was quite important to a lot of white (English-speaking) and Afrikaans people, who were moving more into the mass democratic movement… I’ve always been fascinated by this man, who had the opportunity to do anything he wanted in this country, but chose to side with the oppressed.”
The sentiments expressed by Fischer in his 1966 speech stuck with Kalmer. And as more literature became available on the icon, Kalmer researched even more.
“In 2009, the centenary celebrations (of Fischer’s birth) took place, and I felt that his story was passed over, and I thought: ‘I want to tell this story’,” said Kalmer.
With funds from The Vryfees, Kalmer began working on the project in 2007. “I started researching and chatting to people who knew him – his daughter, Ilse, and fellow prisoners, Hugh Lewin and Denis Goldberg.
Goldberg also looked after Bram when he was dying.
“They would smile when they spoke about him, and I realised this is an extraordinary man… When I went back to my notes and read his speech again, I got glimpses of the man they spoke of,” said Kalmer.
Commenting on what is to be expected on stage, he said: “You cannot write about Bram without writing about his communism and about him being Afrikaans…
“We’ve spent a lot of time on the man (himself)… It’s a one-man show, with Bram played by David Butler. Bram reminisces on things that happened to him through flashbacks.
“We deal with the death of his wife, Molly, in front of his eyes, after a car accident; we look at his love for music, and at why he possibly became a communist… Some of his choices (in life) were bizarre – like when he returned to South Africa from London knowing he would be sent to prison.”
Almost 40 years after his death in 1975, Kalmer said the play would “examine the life, dreams and pain of a man who, besides being a committed Marxist, was also a father, a provincial scrum-half, an accomplished pianist, and one half of one the great South African love stories.”
• The Bram Fischer Waltz is on at the NAF Fringe Programme from June 27 until July 7. A pared-down performance, without set or lighting, will be staged at the Rand Club on August 3 and 4.
• For more information on further Fringe productions, see www.nationalartsfestival.co.za