Realizing Fugard

By Hilferty, Susan | Twentieth Century Literature, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Realizing Fugard


Hilferty, Susan, Twentieth Century Literature


One of my first meetings with Athol Fugard best reveals his approach to theatre and theatre design. It was in New Haven in 1980, during a design meeting for A Lesson from Aloes, for which I was to do the costumes. The set designer's rough model was the centerpiece of the meeting. I will never forget how Athol refined the design through that model, and his brilliant way of encouraging and directing his fellow artists.

After examining the model he beamed with excitement and said "Yes, yes, this is exactly right." Then he stared contemplatively at the model and said, "What if we just look at it without this one element." He asked if we thought this was better. We agreed. "Yes, yes that's much better." He got quiet again and then took away another element. "What do you all think?" We agreed, "Yes, yes that's better, too." He smiled and then took away another piece and another piece and finally, still preserving the spirit of the idea, the design was whittled down to its essential nature. Together we had watched the discovery of the truth of the design. That is how Athol works with designers, with himself as a director and a writer, and with his fellow actors.

He allows actors incredible freedom to flesh out what they recognize in their characters. For Athol the rehearsal room is a sacred place where the mystery of creation happens. After the actors have explored the full range of their characters Athol begins to pare down through communication, debate, and charm, and finds the performances we will see on stage. It's almost like reducing a sauce, removing all the extraneous ingredients. The result is that the actors and the characters are inextricably connected and married to the text.

I think the best example of this is the character of Marius in The Road to Mecca, the minister who wants to move Miss Helen from her home into a home for the aged. After several productions, Athol took on the role. I had assumed that when Athol cast himself he would create the Marius he had been trying to get from the other actors, that there was somehow one Marius he had been trying to reach, and that he was about to show us the way it should be done. My mistake. His Marius bore no resemblance to any other performance. He allowed Marius to reveal an emotional side: he was actually gentle, much warmer, and even funny. Athol's performance was different, for instance, from Bob Peck's at the National in London. Both had imparted a sense of danger to the character, but Bob's Marius was a sinister, brooding edifice which later broke down. And when it broke it was startling in a way that Athol's performance never was. Bob was never as moving as Athol. He was never able to reach the kind of humanity that Athol did. You see, Athol wasn't storing up a definitive Marius. He is as surprised at the results of the rehearsal process as everyone else. He uses the rehearsals as a creative time for everyone involved. And ultimately each production of a play has a completely different flavor and feel because the breadth of Athol's creativity includes his ability to use the talents of the creative people in each individual production.

In theatre the audience can experience a full range of psychological and emotional events. We experience an event without actually having to live through it. To me it's one of the "mysteries" that the imagination can do so much. Theatre is only limited by the room given to the imagination. With Fugard's plays I believe it is important to present the actors in a way that allows them to be uninhibited by the restraints of "reality." When one usurps the territory of the imagination, the plays can lose their effectiveness. An early version of The Road to Mecca, a play "suggested by the life and work of Helen Martins of New Bethesda" (iii), put reproductions of the real Miss Helen's statues on stage. Instead of allowing each person to imagine the art work, the design forced the audience to judge it. In fact the art itself is not important to the play. …

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