To reach out and catch the shadow of a bird in one’s clenched fist. That childlike yet deeply philosophical desire is central to this extraordinary little play, Fugard’s latest, which celebrates life and death as it contemplates the freedom but also the indignity of growing old.
And while elements of the work suffer from a kind of rudderlessness as we watch an old man rifling through a lifetime of his own notes, there’s such beauty in the interface between the old man and the beautiful almost androgynous youngster Marviantoz Baker, who plays his grandson Boba, that it sings, and you forget and forgive the paths where the work might err.
The two share a deep and challenging bond which is capable of invoking lovely monsters as it is of drawing Plato’s cave into the mix. In spite of an erratic and difficult to recognise accent on the part of the young performer, the bond between grandfather and grandson is about feuding family as much as it is about being allies in a sea of bland, pragmatic expectation.
Audiences are flocking to see this work, less for the novelty of the work itself and more to pay homage to a great man who represents the heart of what South African theatre is. They can’t be disappointed: Fugard really does have beautiful stage presence, even now, in his 80s. He has an energy which fills the stage and overflows generously into the audience. There’s a self-deprecating tone to his presence which is as much about his genuine frailties as it is about his skill. It’s endearing but also at times searing, offering insight into the relentlessness of growing older and losing one’s grip on the things that matter.
But the strength of this work, set as it is in Fugard’s current home, Southern California, lies less in its entirety and more in its collaborative contributions. The set, by Saul Radomsky is completely real, down to its tiniest of details: from the comfortable clutter of a lifetime of creative play and work, to the way in which the light – created by Mannie Manim – shifts oh so subtly, switching through the times of day, enveloping the presence of the shadows that inform and underline the work’s repartee.
It’s a space which immediately opens up the viability of Oupa’s back story, fleshing his character out before he even appears on stage. The sound design, by James Webb, is also intricately intertwined into the work, breathing life into its more abstract nuances and lending a magic which is untouchable.
The give and take and earnestness and folly articulated by Fugard and Baker lend the work its backbone, which at times stumbles into too much wordiness, but ultimately negotiates around the concept of love with such unabashed directness it takes your breath away.
The Shadow of the Hummingbird is written by Athol Fugard, featuring direction by Fugard, and Paula Fourie; design by Saul Radomsky (set); Mannie Manim (lighting); and James Webb (sound), it is performed by Fugard and Marviantoz Baker at the Barney Simon Theatre, Market Theatre complex, Newtown, Johannesburg, until August 17.