The Train Driver, Hampstead Theatre, London

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In the programme for this European premiere of his latest play, Athol Fugard describes the work as “for me personally, the most important play I’ve written”. This is no idle statement from a septuagenarian playwright who has chronicled the problems of his native South Africa. The play is short and stark: a tough encounter between two men on a scrubby bit of land. Yet the main character’s inner journey has both metaphorical and political weight, but it also speaks of the playwright’s journey towards being able to write it. Empathy, it suggests, must be earned.

The piece is inspired by a true story. In 2000 Fugard read a harrowing newspaper report detailing the suicide of a black South African woman who stepped in front of train, clutching her three tiny children. All four were killed, yet nobody came to claim them. The desolation behind the incident and the bleak fact that their deaths went unmourned horrified Fugard. He wanted to write about it. But he could not find his way into the level of hopelessness the young woman must have felt. In a sense, then, the play is his journey towards understanding that hopelessness and dealing with guilt.

He imagines the story of the train driver. Here, he becomes Roelf Visagie, an ordinary Afrikaner whose life is changed forever when the young woman looks into his eyes as she goes under the wheels of his train. We meet Roelf as, his life unravelling, he pitches up in a makeshift graveyard at the edge of a squatter camp to the astonishment of Simon, the elderly black grave digger. When Roelf, arrives, he is dishevelled and ranting, eager to find the woman’s grave and curse her for leaving him so traumatised.

Gradually the two men reach some level of understanding. Roelf, living in Simon’s shack, surrounded by miserable poverty, begins to work through his rage, confusion and guilt.

The play has political resonance, exploring the legacy of racial prejudice and persistent poverty, raising the tough issue of moral responsibility, but it also has, in Fugard’s own low-key production, a classical simplicity. The imperative to honour and bury the dead is timeless. The two men, caught literally on the borderline between life and death, could be figures from mythology. And Sean Taylor and Owen L Sejake quietly give it that weight. Taylor, as Roelf, toils and writhes until he comes to a sort of stillness. Sejake is magnificent: a huge, inscrutable presence, who is guarded and pragmatic, yet who sings to soothe troubled ghosts. Determinedly unsentimental, the play offers a hard ending, but a sense of redemption.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

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